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CLARK: The Continuing Significance of Race

J.R. Clark | 9/4/2013, 3 p.m.
The prosecution of the war on drugs over the last 30 years squarely highlights the truth that America as a ...

Justice, fairness and honest political intent has too often throughout our nation’s history taken a back seat to ignorance, greed and expediency. The prosecution of the war on drugs over the last 30 years squarely highlights the truth that America as a fair democracy is very much still a work in progress.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), released a report on the war on marijuana which offered all sorts of supporting data and evidence on the gross racial inequities found in America’s prosecution of this supposed war. That the black community has been the target of the drug war can’t be a surprise to anyone who has read a newspaper or watched any news program in the last 30 years. That’s old news for blacks in America. The report focused on marijuana arrests made in each of the 50 states and the District between 2001 and 2010. The ACLU report confirms what we already knew.

Voices from the streets could be heard way back in 1982 as President Ronald Reagan announced his war on drugs that those most impacted by such a war would be black America. Marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the U.S. As the ACLU points out, there has been an explosion of arrests with 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent of those arrested were for possession. Found within those arrests are the sad racial disparities that confirm the perhaps unintentional but no less real target of the war on marijuana has been black men.

The report tells us that, “[d]espite comparable marijuana usage rates between white people and black people, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.” In fact other studies have shown that for all drugs, possession and use tend to be similar across racial lines. Whether there was an appreciation of the disproportionate impact this modern drug war would have on the black community is unclear. Ignorance of the facts, however, has for some time no longer been an excuse.

As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, our nation’s jails overflow with black men having been admitted at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. If the intent of targeting black men was absent in the 1980s, corporate greed and political timidity perhaps is the excuse now for the continued enhanced and expanded drug enforcement efforts which have led to the explosion of arrests and incarcerations of black America. This of course, leads to homes without fathers or children who come to know of their fathers through a glass window during visiting hours at jail.

Generations of black men now and forever will be affected by the branding of a criminal record. The Department of Justice’s “Smart on Crime” initiative recently announced by the attorney general refines its charging policies regarding mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent offenses. In other words, the government is looking to ease up on marijuana prosecutions. Pulling back now after the damage is done. The marijuana drug war as executed over the last several decades has been and will continue to contribute to the destabilization and perpetration of unhealthy black communities. Even if marijuana were legalized today the impact will be felt by generations of black families.