March 17, 2009

For many Americans, the election of President Obama was the final nail in Jim Crow's coffin.

But it only takes fifteen minutes in any courthouse, watching the parade of black defendants arrested on drug charges, to realize racism still haunts us. Ostensibly color-blind, the enforcement of the US drug laws disproportionately targets black Americans.

Across the country, whites smoke weed and snort cocaine with relative impunity. Blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at roughly comparable rates, but the heavy hand of the law falls on the darker shoulders.

Blacks, for example, are currently arrested on drug charges at more than three times the rates of whites. They are sent to state prisons with drug convictions at ten times the rate of whites. Although there are approximately six times as many whites who use and sell drugs as blacks, almost half of state prisoners sentenced for drugs are black.

Researchers have documented and advocates have decried these racial disparities for two decades. But they are no accident. Although there have long been far more white drug offenders than black ones (not surprising given that blacks are only 13 percent of US population), the "war on drugs" was not created to curb white drug use. It was born in the mid-1980s when crack hit the streets, was quickly demonized and it was widely thought (albeit erroneously) to be linked exclusively to blacks. While "drugs" and "tough on crime" were the words used by politicians wooing an anxious white electorate with draconian new drug laws, the real, although unspoken, subject was race. The image of black drug dealers lurking in alleys rivaled that of Willie Horton in the panoply of white fears.

Is it a surprise that blacks, particularly those in poor urban communities, had higher rates of drug arrests and incarceration than whites? Yet long after the "crack scare" ended, and even as the police have shifted their sights to marijuana (inhaled by millions from both races and accounting for almost 50 percent of all drug arrests nationwide), the imbalance between black and white drug arrest rates remains.

Of course, many well-meaning people say that arresting and incarcerating black drug offenders helps black communities . But there are other ways to help, e.g. greatly expanding substance abuse treatment, drug prevention outreach, and investments in education, housing, jobs, and community infrastructure. Such positive strategies are likely to do as much, if not more, than the 600,000 arrests of black Americans annually on drug charges, (almost 40 percent of them for marijuana).

Arresting more whites would help redress the racial imbalance in drug law enforcement -- but that would simply perpetuate a drug control strategy that is as futile as it is unfair. Cramming our jails and prisons with low- level, nonviolent drug offenders has had little impact on adult drug use and drugs remain cheap, plentiful and easy to get.

The White House civil rights agenda includes several drug policy initiatives -- elimination of the federal crack-powder cocaine sentencing differential, ending racial profiling, and expanding drug courts that send offenders to treatment instead of jail. But these are reforms that tinker at the edges of the bigger problem.

Today, as before, race influences our sense of the danger posed by those who use and sell drugs, the choice of drugs that warrant the most public attention, the choice of strategies with which to combat them, and even the choice of neighborhoods in which to deploy drug law enforcement resources. As a candidate, President Obama said race is an issue the nation cannot afford to ignore. When it comes to drug policies, Americans need to stop ignoring the obvious -- that race is the lens through which drug problems have been viewed.

Stigmatized with criminal records, far too many blacks find themselves barred from employment, housing and the chance to enter mainstream society. Drug law enforcement locks blacks into patterns of disadvantage and exclusion almost as effectively as explicitly racist laws once did. It is time to bury this race-colored "war on drugs" along with Jim Crow.