RACISM, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND ANTI-MINORITY
SENTIMENTS IN THE WAR ON DRUGS
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, above all liberties" (John Milton)
Most everyone knows that certain ethnic groups, such as Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are disproportionately over-represented in the rates of drug- and alcohol-related crime. This finding has been repeatedly reflected in numerous studies, official reports, self-report surveys, arrest data, and prison data (Flowers 1999). Most criminologists argue that minorities are caught up in drug subcultures primarily because of historical factors related to the disillusionments that their ethnic group have experienced in trying to get ahead in life. However, the ONDCP (1997) counters this argument by saying that the disproportionate over-representation is due to over-involvement in drug behavior by these minorities, and not due to any racial bias in the system. Consider the following widely-cited facts from a 2002 report by the Drug Policy Alliance:
Blacks only constitute 13% of all known drug users, but represent 35% of all arrests for drug possession and 74% of all those sentenced to prison for drug possession
Under federal 1986 law, it only takes 1/100 as much crack cocaine as powder cocaine to trigger mandatory minimum sentences
14% of black males who only make up 15% of the American population (that's 1.4 million black males) are currently "disenfranchised" by having lost some of their civil rights permanently following completion of a prison sentence for drug possession
TWO POSSIBLE REASONS OR EXPLANATIONS
Before we jump to any conclusions about these figures, we should consider two (2) possible reasons why the government is GETTING TOUGH at fighting the minority drug problem. (1): THE GOVERNMENT MAY REALLY CARE about the high levels of drug abuse in minority communities. It certainly is true that drug abuse is a family and health issue in most minority communities. According to Tables of Public Opinion available from the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice, more Blacks (68%) than Whites (63%) think "not enough is being done to crack down on the drug problem." This strong level of public opinion may be perceived by politicians as a mandate to get tough. Some studies have shown as much as 20% of minority heads of household blaming "drugs" for family problems and troubles (Flowers 1999). Indeed, Flowers' book, Drugs, Alcohol and Criminality highlights some important health indicators, as excerpted below:
Major Health Indicators in the War on Drugs
|Estimates of Drug Use During Pregnancy (HHS 1994 data)||12%||5%||4%|
|Drug-Related Emergency Room Visits (DAWN 1994 data)||47%||55%||47%|
|Participation in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs (NIDA 1995)||21%||14%||60%|
|Deaths by Cocaine/Heroin Overdose (Medical Examiner 1997 data)||72%||52%||60%|
|First-Time Drug Use in 8th Grade (HHS 1995 data)||39%||55%||20%|
With the exceptions of participation in drug treatment (and possibly overdose and ER visits), minorities greatly outnumber whites among drug-related health indicators. If the drug war could be seen as responsive to a serious health problem in minority communities, then one might suppose that get-tough approaches are being used as some kind of proxy concern for the health of minorities. To support this view, one would have to provide or demonstrate evidence that there are more TREATMENT alternatives also being made available in minority communities. NIDA maintains a CEWG (Community Epidemiology Work Group) which would be ideal for providing this kind of evidence, like NIH's attempt to document efforts to treat AIDS in minority communities, but unfortunately, NIDA's research seems to be single-mindedly concerned with documenting drug distribution networks in minority communities, which suggests a law enforcement rather than health concern.
From the above, it appears that it may be true what proponents of successful Proposition 36 in California have been saying -- that minorities have less access to treatment than whites. It also appears that minorities also tend to receive more CONVICTIONS and PRISON SENTENCES for drugs than whites. The following chart from the Sourcebook of CJ Statistics is illustrative:
This brings us to the second possible reason for why the government is getting tough. (2): THE GOVERNMENT MAY BE PLAYING THE RACE CARD and using the drug war as a proxy for racism. Now, there are different versions of this argument -- some which take the form of conspiracy theories involving the CIA (Lusane 1991; Cockburn & St. Clair 1999); and others, which accuse the government of malign neglect, which happens to be the title of a book by an esteemed criminologist (Tonry 1992). Let's examine the CONSPIRACY argument first, and take the NEGLECT argument secondly.
The Conspiracy Argument
|Lusane (1991) argues that the CIA and its forerunner, the OSS, have long been involved with the global trade in drugs, from early alliances with Nazi scientists to experiments on unwitting American citizens to alliances with opium lords in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to complicity in the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile to the arming of opium traffickers and religious fanatics in Afghanistan to the training of murderous police in Guatemala and El Salvador and to involvement in drugs-and-arms shuttles between Latin America and the U.S. This last incident is known as the IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR (1983-1988), and it turns out that during this time, Contra elements allegedly with CIA assistance shuttled thousands of tons of cocaine into the United States, with the profits going toward the funding of Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Webb (1998) even claims that the CIA helped broker deals between the Contras and Los Angeles street gangs for the distribution of crack cocaine. Senator John Kerry headed up a Committee on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy in 1986, which was largely inconclusive and many key facts are unknown even to this day, but everyone who reads the confused tale of what was Iran-Contra tends to come away with their own conspiracy ideas, especially given the complex "leaks" and disinformation which abound (Cockburn & St. Clair 1999).|
The "malign neglect" argument likewise has an historical event connected with it, and that is the influence of a character named Willie Horton on the Presidential Election of 1988. Facts about this are presented below:
The Malign Neglect Argument
|Back in 1974, Willie Horton stabbed a defenseless gas station attendant 19 times in Massachusetts and was serving a sentence of life without parole, but in 1987, he became eligible for Massachusett's "weekend furlough" program, a state-mandated rehabilitation program that applied to everyone. Once he got out on that weekend furlough, he escaped the supervision of authorities and fled to Maryland where he broke into a house and tortured a white man and raped the man's fiance in front of him for twelve hours. This was not the only such incident with the Massachusetts furlough program, as similar incidents had happened before then. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was running for President on the Democratic Party ticket, and his fellow Democratic primary opponent, Al Gore, was the first to bring up the Willie Horton case, but in the general election, Republican opponents played the ultimate "race card" by making Willie Horton the symbol for how liberal Democrats were soft on crime and how Black criminals would "terrorize" white people if the Republicans were not elected. Outgoing Republican President Ronald Reagan had portrayed Blacks as welfare mothers who used their food stamps to buy drugs, and incoming President George H. Bush was promising a war on drugs unlike any seen before. George H. Bush won the election by a landslide of electoral votes and a 9% lead in the popular vote partly on grounds of promises to see more convicted criminals get the death penalty. Willie Horton did not have to be mentioned specifically by any Republican candidate. The smear ads were paid for by a Political Action Committee of the type that are today called "527 groups" which involve anonymous donors. Republican usage of the Willie Horton issue was successful at diverting attention away from what the Democrats were trying to do, and that was to draw the public's attention to the Iran-Contra Affair. The ultimate effect of the WILLIE HORTON ADS was that no subsequent politician, even Clinton, would ever again allow themselves to appear soft on crime.|
Regardless of whether one subscribes to the conspiracy or neglect argument, we are still left with the question of whether or not specific government officials deliberately chose a political path toward policy that systematically and intentionally targeted Blacks for some sort of war against them in the name of drugs. There has been no "smoking gun" that leads to any specific official, outside of Republican campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, who while dying of cancer in 1991 said "during 1988, while fighting Dukakis, I said I would make Willie Horton his running mate. I am sorry." Likewise, there are a couple of criminals and convicts (a pilot named Fabio Ernesto Carrasco and a money launderer named Felix Rodriquez) who claim they were under orders from the CIA, but their testimony has been largely discredited. Tonry's (1995) malign neglect theory rests upon the assumption that Republican politicians in 1988 knew exactly what they were doing -- declaring a War on Blacks -- and he claims this is because Republicans wanted to keep getting re-elected so bad that they took the low road in crime policy, and fixed it so everyone else would have to take the low road too.
EROSION OF CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS
A more insidious argument is implied by writers such as Wisotsky (1991) and Robinson (2002) who say the war on minorities launched in 1988 was an indirect attack on the Constitution, and that the agenda was really to erode some of our Constitutional safeguards and protections. It is doubtful if such a treasonous thing was intended by anybody, but such writers often claim that, like the War on Terror, Americans are being forced into a dangerous, postmodern existence where they will have to accept the enjoyment of less freedom if they really want the "rights of criminals" to be taken away. The fear is, of course, that rights once taken away, are hard to get back. We all have to make sacrifices in time of war, but the Great American Drug War has brought about a number of specific sacrifices affecting average citizens, all of which can be listed below, as follows:
establishment of drug courier "profiling" and profiling in general
establishment of asset forfeiture and scorched Earth policies
permitting travelers' luggage to be sniffed without probable cause
searches of automobiles and movable vehicles without a warrant
so-called "no knock" warrants along with "sneak and peek" warrants
searching ships in inland waterways without probable cause
obtaining warrants on the basis of anonymous informant tips
encouragement of more "snitching" and snitches in society
expansion of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule
expansion of the plain view exception to the exclusionary rule
expansion of the open fields exception to the exclusionary rule
permitting warrantless aerial searches and school searches
usage of high-end technology and military equipment on citizens
AlterNet: The Color of the Drug War
Declassified Material on the Contra-Cocaine Affair
Dr. Matt Robinson's War on Drugs Pages
Drug Policy Alliance: Effectiveness of Drug War
Reinforcing Racism with the War on Drugs
Sourcebook of CJ Tables on Public Opinion
The Republican PAC Willie Horton Ads of 1988
Willie Horton Revisited
Cockburn, A. & St. Clair, J. (1999). Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press. NY: Verso Press.
Flowers, B. (1999). Drugs, Alcohol and Criminality in American Society. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Grey, M. (1998). Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess & How We Can Get Out. NY: Routledge.
Lusane, C. (1991). Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs. Boston: South End Press.
Office of National Drug Control Policy. (1997). Minorities and Drugs. Rockville, MD: ONDCP Drugs and Crime Clearninghouse.
Reasons, C., Conley, D. & Debro, J. (2002). Race, Class, Gender and Justice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Robinson, M. (2002). Justice Blind? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. [author's website]
Rowe, T. (2006). Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
Tonry, M. (1995). Malign Neglect: Race, Crime and Punishment in America. NY: Oxford Univ. Press. [sample excerpt]
Treaster, J. (1990). "Is the War on Drugs Eroding Civil Rights?" New York Times, May 6:A1,9.
Webb, G. (1998). Dark Alliance: The CIA, Contras, and Crack Cocaine. NY: Seven Springs Press.
Weisheit, R. (Ed.) (1990). Drugs, Crime and the Criminal Justice System. Cincinnati: Anderson.
Wisotsky, S. (1991). "Beyond the War on Drugs." In J. Inciardi (Ed.) The Drug Legalization Debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Last updated: 12/07/05
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