Over the weekend of April 19-20 last year, the city of Chicago was enjoying the springtime. Tourists filled Millennium Park and walked along Michigan Avenue. Music fans crowded the Lincoln Park Zoo for Earth Day concerts. The Cubs swept the Pirates at Wrigley Field. And local son Barack Obama was campaigning in Pennsylvania as a sense was growing that we were about to see history by the end of the year. But not all of Chicago was in a festive mood. Over that same weekend, there were 37 shooting incidents across the city. Police superintendent Jody Weis simply said “you have too many guns and too many guns and too much drugs on the street.”
It was in these neighborhoods in the mid-1980s that Barack Obama was an idealistic young man with an Ivy League degree determined to make a difference. It was also during that time that the death of Len Bias led to Joe Biden’s Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986. That legislation was meant to help out our inner cities by targeting the drug gangs. But as Obama has rocketed up the political landscape, he had a front row seat to the real and disastrous effects that those laws were having in the neighborhoods of Chicago.
Following in the city’s long history of corruption and organized crime, the ascendance of its African-American drug gangs was a new chapter. The world of these new criminal organizations has remained largely unknown outside of the neighborhoods where they’ve operated, symbolized to many only by accounts of shootings on the evening news. Only in recent years has this “other” America been put more into public focus.
Last year, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an incredible book called Gang Leader For a Day, detailing his years spent hanging out with and studying a Chicago drug dealer by the name of JT, who quietly moved up the ladder in the Black Kings gang, commanding respect through both fear and smarts stemming from a business education background. The general image in suburban America of an inner city drug dealer like JT was of a cold-hearted or drug-crazed killer. In reality, many of those who run these drug operations are businessmen who are willing to tolerate jail as a potential risk to their profession. And the ones who succeed are the ones who know that in an industry where secrecy is paramount, violence and intimidation is often necessary. As the war against them intensified, this need for secrecy became more dire. Soon, the culture of these drug gangs began to dominate life in inner city America, just as the culture of the cartels in Mexico put a chill over life in northern Mexico and the culture of the druglords dominates Afghanistan.
As the crackdowns against the drug trade escalated in the 1980s, the racial aspect to the war was barely hidden. This has long been the pattern in how drug law enforcement in America has come about, from the days when “cocaine-crazed negroes” were allegedly committing heinous crimes in the 1920s to the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s. It hasn’t just been against African-Americans either. It was present when anti-Chinese sentiments led to crackdowns on opium smoking in the late 1800s. It was around when various new European immigrant communities with heavy traditions in beer and wine were an excuse to usher in prohibition, and when Harry J. Anslinger used anti-Mexican sentiment to emphasize the dangers of marijuana in the 1930s. In each case, we adopted a mindset that drug use was a greater danger to society if it was being done by minorities than if it was being done by “real” Americans.
This disparity came out most overtly in the legislation that provided for far harsher punishments for possessing crack-cocaine than for possessing powder cocaine. Crack-cocaine was nothing more than a cheaper version of the popular, but expensive, drug. It was made simply by mixing powder cocaine with baking soda. Yet the limits that Congress established for possessing it without facing a lengthy jail sentence were lower by a factor of 100. That meant that a person caught with just .15 ounces (the weight of about 5 paper clips) of crack would receive a five year mandatory minimum jail sentence, while another person caught with one pound of powder cocaine would not. To many who conceived the legislation, the idea was that the stricter sentences would be a necessary deterrent for what was believed to be a more dangerous version of the drug. What it did instead was to help usher in a massive disparity in America when it came to the kinds of people who were sent to jail for drug crimes.
The statistics are just stunning. Despite the fact that the percentages of whites and blacks who use and sell drugs in America are roughly equal, the amount of blacks who go to prison for drug crimes is significantly higher. In 2003, Illinois (along with Wisconsin and New Jersey) led the nation in that disparity, sending over 20 times as many blacks to prison for drug crimes than whites. The four most populous states, Texas, California, New York, and Florida, each had a ratio between 10:1 and 20:1. The end result is a prison system where by 2006, 12% of all black males in this country between the ages of 25-29 were behind bars. It’d be one thing if these were all violent offenders, but the majority of them were first sent away for non-violent offenses like possessing or selling illegal drugs, crimes that many young whites that age rarely worry about going to jail for.
While the disparity in cocaine and crack sentences was a contributor to this massive imbalance, it was far from the only one. Generally poorer, African-American neighborhoods have long been viewed as areas of greater criminality. As a result, voters have often demanded that police crack down in these areas, and intense drug law enforcement became an easy way for police to easily show results and declare victory. The fact that the same police could just as easily have gone into an overwhelmingly white area, or a college university town, and arrested just as many people for drug crimes was irrelevant. The fact that arresting a bunch of drug dealers and seizing a lot of drugs did nothing to lower the crime rates was just as irrelevant. Politics has always trumped pragmatism and parity in the drug war. And the cries of injustice from these communities never resonated the way they would have if they’d come from other areas.
Economics has also played an important role in this disparity. Someone with access to better legal counsel can often get drug charges reduced or even dismissed. And in a few special cases, the disparity between how whites and blacks are treated in the drug war has been outright criminal. One of the most extraordinary examples was in Tulia, Texas, where in 1999, a single task force officer working undercover managed to get nearly 15% of that town’s black population locked up before civil rights activists and attorneys were able to prove that the officer was making up evidence out of thin air.
But it’s not just in places like the Texas panhandle where African-Americans are being funneled into jail at record speed. Some of the states locking up the largest numbers of minorities are blue states like New York, California, and Illinois. According to the 2000 Census, 62.9% of Illinois’ prisoners are black, even though only 15.1% of the state’s residents are black.
Taking stock of the damage, it’s hard to imagine why any Democrat would have been behind this approach, even for purely political reasons. African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, have been disenfranchised through the legal system in droves across the country. In addition, census figures count incarcerated individuals as residents of the rural areas in which the prisons are located, often allowing for re-districting to greatly favor rural constituencies over urban ones. According to the 2000 Census, Illinois had 19 counties where over 60% of their black residents were prisoners.
The idea of sending someone to prison for rehabilitation has been completely obliterated by all of this. The opposite effect has become overwhelmingly more prevalent. Young men are sent to prison and become even more indoctrinated into gang life. And when they’re released, the obstacles that exist for those who have served time in jail are enormous, making it even more likely to end up back within the drug gang underworld. This cycle has cemented the control of most high-level drug trafficking within our inner cities.
Those critical of the drug war have often been prone to conspiracy theories to explain all of this, but the idea that the drug war’s racial disparity is really a conspiracy is misguided. A conspiracy implies an actual plan and coordination to reach a certain goal. The drug war, and the effect that it’s had on African American communities, wasn’t intended to be this way by many of the people who chose to wage it. It came about because of two false beliefs; that drug use and drug dealing were far more prevalent in minority communities, and that taking a military approach to reducing drug use would be effective at lowering drug use, and therefore crime. The result of this folly is the devastation we see today, where despite a drop in crime in America overall, crime in African-American communities remains high.
The amount of crime in a community tends to be affected by a number of factors, but the drug war has exacerbated so many of them that it’s hard not to point to it for being primarily responsible for much of the crime we see today. It’s broken up countless families by putting large numbers of people into jail for doing things that the fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles, and even grandparents in more affluent areas have quietly gotten away with. It’s created a market for high powered guns. It’s cemented the need for a rigid code of secrecy within neighborhoods where the drug war is most heavily waged. And it’s created a fundamental mistrust of law enforcement and public institutions in areas where they’re most desperately needed.
During the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama revealed that his favorite television show was “The Wire,” the cop drama set in Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods and meant by its producers to be a strong indictment of the drug war. And for the years that the show’s creators David Simon (a journalist) and Ed Burns (an ex-cop and teacher) watched their city fall apart around them and accumulated story lines for the show, Senator Joe Biden commuted through it every weekday on his Amtrak train, isolated from the violence, the depravity, and the drug addiction problems that plagued it for years.
When former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke spoke out against the drug war in the late 1980s, he became the first big city mayor to question the wisdom of what Joe Biden and his fellow drug warriors were doing, but while his attack seemed unprecedented and radical at the time, it wasn’t. It mirrored the criticisms of alcohol prohibition put forth by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1920, who called it an unnecessary and costly war that mainly targeted poorer immigrant communities in America’s cities and fueled organized crime. Thankfully, America’s nutty experiment with alcohol prohibition lasted only a little more than a decade.
In the days since Schmoke’s criticisms, more and more mayors have begun to understand the effect the drug war is having on their cities. In 2007, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a scathing resolution calling the war on drugs and failure and encouraging legislation that treats drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal one. Cory Booker, the outspoken mayor of Newark, NJ, has said that the drug war is “causing crime” and “chewing up young black men.” Cities like Newark, which have larger minority populations and sit at the outskirts of major cities, have often borne the brunt of the damage done by our drug war, as large city police jurisdictions with more resources have sometimes been able to push the gang activity to neighboring localities where police are overwhelmed (see: Camden, NJ, East St. Louis, IL, Gary, IN).
If there’s anything that can be said in Joe Biden’s defense here, it’s that he was heavily involved in the recent push to fix the crack-powder sentencing disparity, and that he indicated support for ending the raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in the states where it’s legal. But it’s still not clear the extent to which he recognizes the failure of the drug war and the damage done by his drug war zealotry. While his new boss said in 2004 that the drug war was an “utter failure,” Obama’s criticisms were dialed back significantly during his run for President. To someone who has spent time in the neighborhoods of South Chicago, he’s seen the gang violence, the failed attempts to eradicate the drug trade, and the slow procession of thousands of young men to jail – for crimes that their suburban, white, college-bound counterparts usually get away with. All of this certainly makes the failure of the drug war unmistakable to someone like Barack Obama. But what is he willing and able to do?