Is the War on Drugs Racist? The Surprising Truth Behind the Black Curtain of History

What about the drug war? The notion that the drug war in particular is especially racist is one that is widely accepted across the whole political spectrum. Michelle Alexander, author of ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ writes that “The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime … [it] was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters, as a way to say, “We’re going to get tough on them, put them back in their place”—and ‘them’ was not so subtly defined as African–Americans.” Articles in Time Magazine tell us that “black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites. But new research shows that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders, compared to whites….” Even Ron Paul, known for a series of newsletters containing statements like “Carjacking … It’s the hip-hop thing to do among the urban youth who play unsuspecting whites like pianos,” believes it. Quote: “ … minorities are punished unfairly in the war on drugs. … blacks make up 14% of those who use drugs, yet 36% of those arrested are Blacks and it ends up that 63% of those who finally end up in prison are Blacks. This has to change. … We need to repeal the whole war on drugs.”  [1]

Yet, we saw in the last post that there is very good reason to believe that, whatever the ultimate cause, African–Americans are not arrested disproportionately to their numbers in other crimes. Contrary to popular impression, drug policies are responsible for very little—relatively speaking—of the disparity in incarceration rates between whites and blacks. The fact that incarceration rates for crimes involving drugs correspond so closely to these general incarceration rates should, in and of itself, immediately make us skeptical of the claim that African–Americans are imprisoned so disproportionately here. (It will turn out that a surprising hell of a lot is simply wrong about the data underlying this claim.) Stephan and Abigal Thernstrom, in the 1997 America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible – Race in Modern America provide us with some of the relevant numbers: “In 1980, before the antidrug crackdown, African Americans were 34.4 percent of the inmates in federal prisons, and 46.6 percent of those in state penitentiaries. By 1994, their share of the federal prison population had risen only slightly, to 35.4 percent. Among state prisoners, the black proportion rose three points between 1980 and 1993 to 49.7 percent.”

They continue: “The black prison population would be smaller, but not much smaller, if the drug laws were different—if, for example, crack and powder cocaine were treated identically. But a calculation made on data for prisoners newly admitted to penitentiaries in thirty–eight states in 1992 indicates that if the percentage of black men serving drug sentences had been reduced to the figure for white men, the black proportion of the total would have fallen from 50 percent to 46 percent. Again, not a trivial difference, but hardly a monumental one. A similar calculation done for prisoners in federal facilities yields even less of a difference; we could have made the proportion of black males sent to federal prisons for drug offenses in 1994 identical to the proportion among white males by setting free just 855 African–American men, a mere 3 percent of those sent to a federal penitentiary that year.”

The charge that the criminal justice system as a whole is racist, then, simply cannot hang on the rate of arrests for drug use—at worst, drug arrests are an exception to an overall pattern of racially disproportionate arrests which are justified by the racial proportions of crime. But critics who argue that the criminal justice system as a whole is racist almost always extend this argument to the racial breakdown of arrests for crime in general as well, and as we saw in the previous post, this claim is put down by the fact that victim and witness reports—who have every possible reason not to lie—indicate a larger racial disproportion in rates of crime than are suggested by police arrest rates. The fact that critics who make charges of racism are wrong in the case of all other crimes should make us skeptical of the notion that this is the sole case in which they suddenly have it right, and the fact that the racial proportion of arrests for drug crimes so closely matches the corroborated proportion of arrests for other crimes should instantly make us skeptical that this is the sole case in which the same rates of arrest are suddenly so wildly disproportionate.

  _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

But before we get into the statistics, a timeline of relevant history is in order.

In 1956, the white Reverend Norman C. Eddy of the East Harlem Protestant Parish “opened a store–front drop–in center and a clinic where addicts received a physician’s services, referrals to hospitals, assistance in job searches, psychological counseling, and legal assistance for those facing criminal charges.”

Quickly, the EHPP became overbooked: “with a staff of three … the EHPP storefront recorded visits from 2,175 individual users (or 5 percent of the nation’s addicts, according to FBN statistics).” Faced with these prospects, the EHPP joined with five other programs to become the New York Neighborhoods’ Council on Nacotics addiction in 1959—and after successfully lobbying state government for additional hospital beds and after–care programs for detoxified users, went on to help pass  the Metcalf–Volker Narcotic Addict Committee Act signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller that allowed addicts arrested for possession to choose in–patient treatment in a state hospital rather than jail. [2] Yet, despite their efforts, “A study of a single block (100th Street between First and Second Avenues) that followed residents over four years found that one–third of the sixty teenagers interviewed in 1965 had become heroin users by 1968.” [2] A staggering half of the entire nation’s addicts lived in New York State by the end of 1963—almost 23,000 of the nation’s 48,000. [3]

Over time, it became more and more apparent that these social programs weren’t resolving the problem. As black citizens continued to take the brunt of the impact of social dysfunction from rampant drug abuse, the tone—driven by black backlash against what was considered to be a failed liberal approach to addiction and crime, and police apathy towards the plight of black victims of crime and drug abuse—became increasingly militant. I draw here as one of my primary sources particularly of citations of newspaper clippings that can’t be found online from Michael Javen Fortner, the African–American Assistant Professor and Academic Director of Urban Studies at the Murphy Institute at CUNY SPS. Many of these will be taken from his The Carceral State and the Crucible of Black Politics: An Urban History of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which “examines how African American mobilization for greater public safety in Harlem shaped the evolution of narcotics–control policies in New York State from 1960 until 1973,” objecting to “prevailing theories [of the origins of the drug war which overemphasize] … the exploitation of white fears … or the political strategies of Republican political elites,” and “ignore the ‘invisible black victim.’”

In 1961, Mark T. Southall, member of the Urban League and NAACP, tells a Democratic Party hearing that “[Harlem] is slowly and surely becoming a cesspool of the dreadful narcotics racket … Churches are constantly being robbed by addicts … Ministers and other citizens of the community are being mugged, beaten, and robbed by addicts, who also are guilty of rapes, pickpocketing and many other crimes, daily and nightly.” [4] In 1962, the Reverend Oberia Dempsey led a seven–week drive to “Urge the president to mobilize all law enforcement agencies to unleash their collective fangs on dope pushers and smugglers … urge Governor Rockefeller to also push a similar crackdown … [and] spur Mayor Wagner and Police Commissioner Michael Murphy to turn loose the city’s police … [on] narcotics dealers.” [5] In 1968, Dempsey (who “always carried a .32–caliber pistol … even in church”) recruits “volunteers from among retired policemen, guards and others who had been trained and held pistol permits” to take immediate action to repel “pushers.” The theory that activists like Dempsey were ‘uncle Toms,’ Fortner writes in “‘Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?’: Rev. Oberia Dempsey and His Citizen’s War on Drugs”, cannot explain his movement’s “grassroots character … the petitions signed by thousands, the marches and rallies, the letters to editors, appearances at hearings, town halls, and emergency meetings.”

An article published by Ebony in 1970 discusses State Senator Waldaba Stewart’s support for “groups in Harlem … known as Black Citizen Patrols. The no–nonsense groups have served notice that “we’re going to have to keep the heat on every spot that’s well–known as a dope drop. … we document an area as a drug drop. Then we turn our report over to the police. If nothing happens, … we barricade the place … Our last step is to have citizen arrests made by our members who are off–duty black policemen.” Similar articles over this period of time include “Harlem Vigilantes Move On ‘Pushers’” published in the Chicago Daily Defender in Jun. 23 of 1965, and “Addicts’ Victims Turn Vigilante” published in the New York Times in 1969. [6]  The Black Liberation Army ran a campaign to “Deal with the Dealer” by identifying the “hangouts” of prominent drug dealers and manufacturers and raid them. [7] In some cases, drug dealers were killed—both Assata Shakur and Hubert Gerold Brown, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were involved in trials related to underground attacks on drug activity in black communities.[8] A New York Times report warned in 1968 that Harlem “could become a community of gunfighters, reminiscent of the Old West, if the law failed to protect black citizens from outlaws.”

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

In 1970, the Congressional Black Caucus took one of its first formal actions when the 12 black members of the U.S. House of Representatives met with President Nixon under that name, presenting him with a document which outlined 61 recommendations they requested the President consider—an opportunity the members had requested since the year previous when the organization was first founded as the “Democratic Select Committee,” and which they obtained only after having taken the dramatic and unprecedented step of boycotting the President’s State of the Union Address. In the document, they wrote: “We strongly urge that drug abuse and addiction be declared a major national crisis. … Since organized crime is the principal distributive mechanism of hard narcotics, we urge that Justice Department manpower for investigation and prosecution in that area be substantially increased.”

 That same year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, containing the Controlled Substances Act—“the legal foundation of the government’s fight against the abuse of drugs and other substances… regulating the manufacture and distribution of narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids, and chemicals used in the illicit production of controlled substances.” Of the ten African–American representatives in Congress at that time, three of the five who voted (Robert N. C. Nix, Sr.; George W. Collins; and Shirley Chisholm) voted ‘Yea.’ (John Conyers and Bill Clay voted ‘Nay.’ William Dawson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Charles Diggs, Gus Hawkins, and Louis Stokes abstained.)

Ironically, it was in 1972 that a group composed mainly of white conservatives recommended the legalization of marijuana. Governor Raymond P. Shafer, chairman of Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (created by the Controlled Substances Act) wrote in the final report that “Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety … [T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. … The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.” Public support for legalization remained under 20% for the most part until 1993, and so far as I can tell there was no significant African–American advocacy either within or outside of Congress for the measure.

However, 1973 was the year a very different law that was established in the State of New York—which did receive widespread and notable support from a large chunk of African–Americans, leaders and public alike—marked a significant historical turning point in the history of the war on drugs. In 1962, it had been New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who signed the Metcalf–Volker Act in response to the petitions of the Reverend Norman C. Eddy and others, allowing arrested addicts to choose in–patient treatment in a state hospital over jail. Rockefeller had taken office expressing staunch opposition to “[conservative] extremists [who] feed on fear, hate and terror … [and] have no program for America—no program for the Republican Party … no solution for our problems of chronic unemployment, of education, … or racial injustice….”

But in December of 1965, Rockefeller had begun holding meetings with “Harlem officials and a follow–up closed session with an influential group of Negro leaders” to discuss the rising drug problem. In a unity of middle– and lower–class black interests, these “influential group[s]” included members of the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church whose “members were considered ‘the better element of colored people’” [10] as well as members of Salem Methodist, which was described as refusing to cater to “the tastes of the black bourgeoisie.” [11] Less than a month later, when Rockefeller delivered his message to the opening session of the legislature in the new year, his tone had changed: now he spoke of the need “to act decisively in removing pushers from the streets and placing addicts in new and expanded state facilities for effective treatment, rehabilitation, and after care.” [12]

So in 1966, he passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act which allowed, for the first time, for addicts to be compulsively treated if they had been accused of a crime (and allowed magistrates to compel treatment in a civic center even if they had not)—but even a year after this bill had apportioned the state with $75 million for the creation of rehabilitation centers, the complaints and problems continued. In 1967, residents sought meetings with the Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary, complaining that drug–related crime “forced merchants to close their shops early and brought armed civilian patrols into the streets”—while very clearly blaming “addicts for the purse snatchings, the muggings, the burglaries and the beatings.” [13] Still in 1968, the pastor of Harlem’s Second Friendship Baptist Church estimated that “90 percent of the people refuse to come out at night … even on Sunday…” in fear of drug–related violence. [14]

After analyzing homicide data from 1950–1980, Charles Murray writes that “it was much more dangerous to be black in 1972 than it was in 1965, whereas it was not much more dangerous to be white.”  Then, as now, the majority of victims of minority acts of violence were minorities themselves: “In New York City, seventy percent of the victims of homicides, muggings, and narcotics pushers were African Americans and Puerto Ricans.” [9] In 1970, “Thirty three percent of nonwhites identified drugs and crime as major issues while only 18 percent of the entire sample [skewed by that 33% of nonwhites] mentioned either drugs or crime”. [15] And in 1973, 71% of blacks favored life sentences without parole for “pushers.” [16]

One of Rockefeller’s closest aides and speech–writers, Joseph Persico, tells the story on pp.142–144 of The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller of how, in 1972, Rockefeller encountered William Fine, the president of a department store and chairman of a rehabilitation program whose son struggled with addiction, and asked Fine to visit Japan to learn why the nation had one of the world’s lowest addiction rates. In his response to Rockefeller, Fine wrote: “The thing that impressed me most of all is the single minded conviction they have that public interest is above human rights when it comes to an evil. … the human rights of those who get involved in narcotics, or push narcotics, are brushed aside—quickly, aggressively, and with little or no recourse…It is incredible to me that they have had such success, but then, it really all comes down to what people are willing to give up to get, and the Japanese, obviously, were willing to give up the soap box movement on human rights in order to rid the public of the evil abuses of drugs.”

And so it came to pass that in 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s drug laws were passed in New York, marking a dramatic change in the history of the “war on drugs”—they were the first to promote harsh penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for possession. As this insightful paper notes, “Governor Nelson Rockefeller did not root his campaign for harsh new drug laws in the politics of white racial backlash. Instead, he championed the laws by publicizing their endorsement by several African American community leaders from Harlem”—such as those covered by the articles in Ebony magazine in 1970 and the Chicago Daily Defender in 1965. Whereas the paper notes that “… liberals and Democrats were equal partners in embracing and promoting law and order in the 1960s and 1970s and creating the laws that led to mass incarceration,” the Wikipedia entry lists libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, conservative public intellectual William F. Buckley, and “many in law enforcement” (along with civil rights activists) as some of the most notable opposition.

In fact, when William F. Buckley held debate against the war on drugs in 1991, his opponent in the debate was Charles Rangel—a black Democrat representing Harlem. In the debate, he asks Buckley: “Why is it that when we talk about this drug problem … you put on blinders, and you find … one of the things that is not working … Why do you just say ‘legalize?’ Why don’t you talk about education? If we were not making progress in the Middle East, because the Army was not moving forward, but the Air Force was actually doing a tremendous job, would you say ‘eliminate the Army?’” Later, in 1989, Rangel was profiled by Ebony magazine, where he was called a “front–line general in the war on drugs”—and the article quotes him as condemning what he called Nixon’s “lackadaisical attitude” towards drugs.

The response of Glester Hinds, the head of Harlem’s People’s Civic and Welfare Association, to the new law? “I don’t think the governor went far enough … his bill [should include] capital punishment because these murderers need to be gotten rid of completely. Yet because of the bleeding hearts that we have, the legislators try to be pacifistic in having laws that do not work.” When NYU Law School Professor and former staff attorney for the NAACP Leroy D. Clark spoke against the measure, he acknowledged that he spoke against a large percentage of the black community: “…[We] must be vigilant and keep our eye on what may be someone’s hidden agenda … I ask for a restraint, which our communities now do not feelbecause they feel the community is being immobilized by the addict.” [17]

As Michael Javen Forner writes in Invisibility and Imprecision in the Historiography of Mass Incarceration, “Although blacks constituted 14% of New York City’s population in 1960 and around 19% in 1970, they constituted a disproportionate share of deaths due to drugs, representing anywhere from 50% to 60% of all such deaths from 1960 until 1973. In fact, this rate dips below 50% only after the passage of the drug laws in 1973.”

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

A key thread running throughout much of black sentiment across these periods of time was that society’s demonstrations of racism were in its not giving enough of a damn to do something to stop the epidemic because it didn’t care enough to do something to help black victims—exactly the opposite of how the situation is viewed today. In 1970, an Ebony magazine piece covering grassroots efforts to fight drug use in black communities begins by noting that Mothers Against Drugs—“which urges community people to record the names, addresses, and license plate numbers of known traffickers, suppliers, and pushers” sends this information directly “to the district attorney’s office”—spitefully skips over local police because they believe resentfully that police “simply don’t care about drugs in black communities.“ 

It opens in the first paragraph with this quote from a grieving mother: “You know the best way to deal with the dope problem? Get as many white kids on it as possible! The best news I’ve heard in a long time is that more white kids are getting hooked on heroin. If I had the money I’d buy it and give it to them free!” 

The Knapp Commission provided some empirical support for this perception when, in 1972, it investigated police corruption and concluded that the biggest problem was with the “overwhelming majority … who accept gratuities and solicit five– and ten– and twenty–dollar payments … but do not aggressively pursue corruption payments.” The report noted that: “At the time of the investigation certain precincts in Harlem … comprised what police officers called “the Gold Coast” because they contained so many payoff–prone activities, numbers and narcotics being the biggest.”

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

The story still wasn’t over.

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the rise of crack cocaine, and a rise in drug–related crimes once again came with it.

Alfred Blumstein and Joseph Wallman write in their 2006 volume, The Crime Drop in Americathat “A focus on New York City is easily justified by its bellwether role in national drug and violence trends and its hugely disproportionate numeric weight in those trends” In chapter 6, “The rise and decline of drugs, drug markets, and violence in New York City,” (pp.164–206) the authors document that the epidemic in New York City “peaked” between 1987 to 1989—when 70% of all arrestees tested positive for either crack or powder cocaine in urinalysis. Across the fifteen years between 1960 and 1975, there were an average of just 1,066 murders per year. But from 1975 to 1986 when the law was passed, there were an average of 1,941 murders per year—almost twice as many. “U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics show that 29 percent of all crack cases from October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2009, involved a weapon, compared to 16 percent for powder cocaine;” and it is plausible, especially in light of all the other facts listed here, this association was also true in the past.

In 1982, the Congressional Black Caucus released the “Black Leadership Family Plan for the Unity, Survival and Progress of Black People.” The document, penned by civil rights icon and DC representative Walter Fauntroy—who led the prayer at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral—includes criticism that “diminished drug enforcement increases [black youth’s] vulnerability to drug abuse” and warns that the “incidence of crime in black communities is increasing because of intentional and unintentional failure on the part of law enforcement agencies to provide adequate protection”—finally urging police, once again, to “increase drug enforcement efforts.”

Ta–Nehisi Coates, in The Beautiful Struggle: A Father Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood discusses (on pp.29–30) his own recollection of the time period: “When crack hit Baltimore, civilization fell. Dad told me how it used to be. In his time, the beefs were petty and stemmed from casual crimes. … The bad end of a beef was loose teeth and stitches, rarely shock trauma and “Blessed Assurance” ringing the roof of the storefront funeral home. … The world was filled with great causes … But we died for sneakers stitched by serfs, coats that gave props to teams we didn’t own, hats embroidered with the names of Confederate states. I could feel the falling, all around. The flood of guns wrecked the natural order.” In 1987, two veteran civil rights activists, Reverend Hosea Williams and comedian Dick Gregory, began a 40–day fast camping alternately outside the White House, U.S. Capital, and New York Stock exchange to protest drug abuse and “send a telegram to President Reagan asking him to commit more Federal money to the fight against drug abuse.” In a later, 1986 speech, Fauntroy declared that “Drugs—and now ‘crack’—are indeed the source of threat to all civilized society and each of us must accept 100% of the responsibility for eliminating this threat in our midst….” And it was in 1986 that the first major piece of federal drug war legislation, The Anti–Drug Abuse Act, created the well–known 100–to–1 crack–cocaine sentencing disparity.

Returning to America in Black and White, the Thernstroms write: “Critics of the war on drugs … allege [that this policy was] blatantly racist, because crack tends to be used by blacks and powder cocaine by whites. If so, it is certainly peculiar that the Congressional Black Caucus backed the law, and that some of its members proposed even tougher penalties on crack. They knew that crack was much more common in black neighborhoods than in white ones, and that more blacks than whites were likely to be incarcerated as a result of the change. And in fact, that was precisely their reason for supporting the legislative change: a conviction that it might reduce the havoc on the streets where their constituents lived.” Of twenty–one black members of Congress at this time, seventeen are listed here as co–sponsors of the bill: Charles Hayes1, Alton R. Waldon, Jr.2, Mitchell Parren3, Charles B. Rangel4, Harold Ford, Sr.5, Julian C. Dixon6, William H. Gray III7, Mickey Leland8, Mervyn M. Dymally9, Major R. Owens10, Edolphus Towns11, Alton R. Waldon, Jr.12, Bill Clay13, Cardiss Collins14, Ronald Dellums15, Louis Stokes16, and Walter Fauntroy himself17. Only Gus Savage, Alan Wheat, George W. Crockett, Jr., and John Conyers fail to make the list—whether by ‘Nay’ or abstention is unclear.

The years of 1975–1986, as previously noted, saw an average number of 1,941 murders in the State of New York per year. But by 1995, the number had returned closed to the previous rate—1177—and has continued falling since then, with an average between 1995 and 2014 of just 634 murders per year. In fact, the years 2013 and 2014 both saw a total of less than 328 murders each.

 What happened?

Franklin Zimring, professor of law and chairman of the Criminal Justice Research Program at the University of California at Berkeley, discusses the rise in crime experienced during the second half of the 1980’s, and the drop in crime experienced during 1990–2000 in The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. Notably, Zimring is no “law–and–order” conservative—his 2003 book The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment notes that the death penalty has been most actively used by the same states in which the most lynchings historically occurred. The City That Became Safe argues against the infamous “broken window theory,” advanced by conservative social scientist James Q. Wilson, that harsh treatment of low–level offenses was responsible for drops in crime across this periods of time. He critiques James Q. Wilson’s claim (on pp.83–87) that an increase in youth would lead to proportionate increases in crime.

He also argues (pp.90–99), correlating hospitalizations and deaths from overdose with changes in the known street price, that overall use of cocaine appears to have remained relatively constant [Update 4/20/2016: However, see this footnote] across the period of time in which New York City’s crime drop took place. Yet, he notes (pp.91–92) that “The peak rates of drug–involved homicide occurred in 1987 and 1988”—the same year that 70% of arrestees were found to test positive for cocaine—“and the drop in the volume of such killings is steady and steep from 1993 to 2005. … The volume of drug–involved homicides in 2005 is only 5% of the number in 1990.” Meanwhile, whereas 70% of arrestees in the late 1980s tested positive for cocaine, by 1991 (see table 2 on page 14) this number hit a low of 62%—and in 1998 it had fallen all the way to 47.1%. By 2012 (see figure 3.7 on page 45) this number fell even further to 25%.

What happened here? Why would drug use amongst arrestees fall if drug use as a whole remained constant? Zimring has an important answer: “If I’m a drug seller in a public drug market and you’re a drug seller in a public market, we’re both going to want to go to the corner where most of the customers are. But that means that we are going to have conflict about who gets the corner. And when you have conflict and you’re in the drug business, you’re generally armed and violence happens. … Policing … [helped drive] drug trade from public to private space. … [this] reduced the risk of conflict and violence associated with contests over drug turf. The preventive impact [of these policies] on lethal violence seems substantially greater than its impact on drug use. … [And] once the police had eliminated public drug markets in the late 1990s, the manpower devoted to a special narcotics unit [whose funding had increased by 137% between 1990 and 1999] dropped quite substantially [and yet the policies’ impacts on homicide rates remained].”

Critics of the drug war often imply that drug–related violence is a result of the criminalization of drugs creating black markets. The history of New York seems to suggest exactly the opposite: drugs created drug–related violence and turf wars; and the existence of these is exactly why black victims of drug–related violence agitated originally for increased penalties towards drugs.

Furthermore, this fact gives us one reason minorities may be legitimately arrested in disproportionate numbers for possession of drugs even if total rates of use are in fact constant: minorities are disproportionately involved in public drug trades where violence and turf wars are more likely to occur. In decrying James Q. Wilson’ “broken window theory,” he emphasizes another important way that drug policy impacted crime: “Marijuana was not a priority of the New York City police, yet they had a huge number of public marijuana arrests. Why was that? That was because they were only arresting minority males who looked to them like robbers and burglars and they used as a pretext the less serious crime arrest to find out whether the particular person they were arresting had a warrant out for a felony and was a bad actor. … The good news is that drug violence went down tremendously. There are a couple of different ways in which the police department measures the number of killings associated with drug traffic in New York; both of those measures that they use are down more than 90 percent so that the streets themselves have been changed, people can walk there, and the number of dead bodies associated with illegal drug traffic has gone way, way down.

Regarding marijuana arrests, Zimring notes that “While the gender distribution of marijuana users is close to 50–50, the gender distribution of arrests is 93% to 7%”—which parallels the disproportionately male gender distribution of crime. In other words, the gender distribution of marijuana arrests and the gender distribution of crime parallel each other in the same way that the the racial distribution of marijuana arrests and the racial distribution of crime do—and no one ever assumes that “stop and frisk” policies are an expression of anti–male, or misandrist, gender bias. Zimring concludes: “This is only circumstantial evidence that the police are going after robbery risks, but it is conclusive evidence that they aren’t trying to go after marijuana as a threat to the quality of life.” Indeed, even critics of these policies acknowledge that “Marijuana stops are more prevalent in precincts where… “high–crime area” justifications are more likely to be reported….” Critics may be right that marijuana stops are only a “pretext” for the real reasons for the arrest—but the real reasons just might be valid suspicion of crime, which correlate with race simply because different racial groups do in fact commit different proportions of the total amount of crime, and not bias on the basis of race alone—no more than the policy’s gender imbalance proves that it is a simple pretext for targeting men simply because society despises masculinity. If drug arrests take place on valid grounds of suspicion of criminal behavior, then this may, in fact, be one valid reason for the racial percentages of drug arrests to exceed the racial percentages of drug use even if the former is in fact disproportionate to rates of personal use. 

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

That brings us to the question of the policies known as “stop and frisk.”

On Tumblr, the author of ‘Racism Still Exists’ gives us the usual story—black people are stopped and frisked disproportionate to their representation of the population, and that disparity is all it takes to reach a conclusion of racism: “Black people comprise 26% of the city, but they are 52% of those who are stopped.  On the other hand, White people are 47% of the population, but they are only 9% of those who are stopped.” What goes ignored in this comparison is, as usual, the actual murder and crime rate—quoting Heather MacDonald: “Blacks are 66 percent of all violent–crime suspects, according to the victims of and witnesses to those crimes. Blacks commit around 70 percent of all robberies and about 80 percent of all shootings in the city. Add Hispanic shooters, and you account for 98 percent of all shootings in the city. Whites, by contrast, were only 5 percent of all violent crime suspects in 2011. According to victim and witness reports, white suspects commit barely over 1 percent of all shootings and less than 5 percent of all robberies.” Thus—once again—the actually relevant comparisons suggest that it is whites who are “victimized” disproportionately to their actual representation of the crime rate. If we call a suspect who is unlikely to actually be involved in a crime an unjustified suspect, then there are in fact statistically more unjustified white suspects than there are unjustified black suspects inconvenienced by “stop and frisk” policies.

The author also tells us, citing this New York Times article, that “In Brownsville, residents stated that they were frequently stopped and or ticketed for entering their own or friends’ homes in public housing because they did not use a key—but that was because the front door lock was broken.” Of course, Brownsville’s demographic is 76.7% black and only 2.6% white. But the author fails to mention that Brownsville ranks 69th out of all 69 boroughs in New York for murder. Kensington, a borough in Buffalo, has the lowest murder rate and has a similar racial demographic spread: 82.3% black and only 11.5 white. Yet just 2% of the population of Kensington is stopped and frisk, compared to 29.1% for the population of Brownsville. The chart on page four makes it clear that Brownsville has the highest, and Kensington the lowest, stop–and–frisk rates of all boroughs in New York. Once again, this corresponds exactly to the murder rate across New York, which is highest of all in Brownsville and lowest of all in Kensington. The rate does not increase in Kensington because it has a higher proportion of black resident—it falls, because it has a lower rate of murder and crime. (Intriguing note: Jewish neighborhood watch groups called Shomrim are known to conduct patrols in Kensington, and coordinated a 5000–person volunteer search for a missing boy in coordination with police in 2011—then sought and successfully found his killer.)

During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, police apathy towards minority victims of minority crimes was the target of accusations of racism. Today, we see that police enthusiasm, too, is unacceptably racist. But if “stop and frisk” policies work, then their primary beneficiaries are, in fact, minorities. Just as minorities commit a disproportionate amount of the United States’ crime, so too are they disproportionately the victims of it. Heather Macdonald writes: “Blacks, for example, constituted 78% of shooting suspects and 74% of all shooting victims in 2012, even though they are less than 23% of the city’s population. Whites, by contrast, committed just over 2% of shootings and were under 3% of shooting victims in 2012, though they are 35% of the populace. … Minorities make up nearly 80% of the drop in homicide victims since the early 1990s.”

Do “stop and frisk” policies actually work? In The City That Became Safe, Franklin Zimring notes that there were, at the time of his writing, no studies that adequately controlled for the other policies he documents which changed across the same period of time. Today, however, Colin Lubelczyk writes: “The only study that explicitly poses the question “Does stop and frisk stop crime?” was an unpublished paper by Robert Purtell and Dennis Smith that relied on monthly precinct level data from New York City from 1997 to 2006. After controlling for a large number of variables including the effects of hotspots policing, Purtell and Smith found that stop and frisk helped reduce robbery, burglary, murder, and grand larceny … While other researchers have looked into similar questions as the one posed by Purtell and Smith, they do not isolate stop and frisk as a variable and instead combine its effects with other police strategies like 1) firearm reduction, 2) hot spots policing, and 3) order maintenance policing.” As Heather MacDonald concludes, “To be sure, thousands of innocent New Yorkers have been questioned by the police. Even though such stops may have been justified given the information the officer had at the time, they’re still humiliating and infuriating experiences. But if the trade–off is an increased risk of getting stopped in a high-crime neighborhood versus an increased risk of getting shot there, most people would choose the former.”

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

In his discussion of claims that mass incarceration is ‘the New Jim Crow’ in “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,”  James Forman, Jr.—son of civil rights leader, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Black Panther member James Forman; maternal grandson of 1960s investigative journalist and active Communist Party member Jessica Mitford—writes, “One of Jim Crow’s defining features was that it treated similarly situated blacks and whites differently. … But violent crime is a different matter. While rates of drug offenses are roughly the same throughout the population, blacks are overrepresented among the population for violent offenses. For example, the African American arrest rate for murder is seven to eight times higher than the white arrest rate; the black arrest rate for robbery is ten times higher than the white arrest rate. Murder and robbery are the two offenses for which the arrest data are considered most reliable as an indicator of offending.” His purpose here isn’t to point a finger at drug arrests per se so much as it is to discuss the phenomena of “mass incarceration” on its own terms, but he goes on to distinguish drug arrests from arrests for all other crimes: “Because the [Jim Crow] analogy leads proponents to search for disparities in the criminal justice system that resemble those of the Old Jim Crow, they confine their attention to cases where blacks are like whites in all relevant respects, yet are treated worse by law. Such a search usefully exposes the abuses associated with … the drug war,” although “it does not lead to a comprehensive understanding of mass incarceration.”

Yet, we have seen several reasons to be skeptical of these claims: first, the percentage of minorities arrested for drug–related crime is not different from the percentage of minorities arrested for violent crimes in general—and as we saw in the last entry, “Are African–Americans Disproprotionately Victimized by Police?”—and as Forman Jr. agrees—we have overwhelming reason to believe that these arrest rates are in fact not the result of racism, but simple direct response to the percentage of crime African–Americans actually commit: victims report a higher percentage of African–American perpetrators than are arrested by police. It would be incredibly strange, then, if drug arrests are the sole category in which African–Americans are suddenly disproportionately arrested. If racism is the cause for this disproportionality, then why aren’t African–Americans arrested disproportionate to their actual crime rate for violent crimes? Why would this racism suddenly appear in the sole case of drug use, and vanish as soon as a black person burglarizes a home (as we saw in the last entry, “victims tell police that 45 percent of the perpetrators were black, but only 28 percent of the people arrested for that crime were black”)?

Furthermore, it was African–American victims themselves who historically led the most notable efforts to increase the attention law enforcement gave to the epidemic of drug–related crimes, and underlied the most significant historical changes in public drug policy—and racism was then alleged on the basis that law enforcement, and white society in general, didn’t give enough of a damn to do anything about them because they weren’t having to deal with the consequences. 

Where have we gone wrong?

The problem is this: we’ve acquired our estimates of who uses what drugs how frequently by self–report.

Self–reports are notoriously inaccurate. People often have incredibly poor memories—oftentimes, they’re even dishonest. Frequently, they report what they want to believe instead of what actually happened. Reliance on inaccurate self–reports of dietary intake is, in fact, one reason that dietary recommendations are so often contradictory over time. 60% of people who call themselves “vegetarian” ate a hamburger within the last 24 hours. A 2015 paper in the International Journal of Obesity writes of the reliance of self–reports in obesity research that “[The data] are so poor as measures of actual [energy intake] and [physical activity] that they no longer have [any] justifiable place in scientific research.” In an announcement from 17 members of the American Society for Nutrition titled ‘Self-report–based estimates of energy intake offer an inadequate basis for scientific conclusions,’ the authors write that “the magnitude of the bias may even have increased in recent years”—“motivated,” as they put it, “by social desirability:” in other words, because people say what they want to believe. And people apparently want to believe that they’re eating less now even more than they did in the past. Other research finds that people with a “diagnosed medical condition” are much more likely to overreport their meat intake—a fact that may have caused meat intake to become more associated with illness in epidemiological studies than it really is by sheer statistical fluke. Women were even found to be more likely to under–report their meat and calorie intake than men (a fact which had been studied elsewhere).

We shouldn’t take self–reports about diet naively for granted. In fact, many argue that we should recognize that they’re damn well outright useless—and it is even well–documented here that demographic characteristics such as illness and gender influence an individual’s accuracy in reporting. Why should we take self–reports for granted in the case of drugs?

In fact, we have studies establishing that demographics correlate with accuracy in self–reported drug use as well.

A 2008 “Comparison between self-report and hair analysis of illicit drug use in a community sample of middle-aged men” determined that “Discrepancies between biological assays and self-report of illicit drug use could undermine epidemiological research findings. … Male participants followed since 1972 were interviewed about substance use, and hair samples were analyzed …. Self-report and hair testing generally met good, but not excellent, agreement. Apparent underreporting of recent cocaine use was associated with inpatient hospitalization for the participant’s most recent quit attempt, younger age, identifying as African–American or Other, and not having a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. … African–Americans in comparison to Caucasians who were urine positive were about 6 times less likely to report cocaine use when other factors are controlled for.” 

A 2005 study, “Race/Ethnicity Differences in the Validity of Self–Reported Drug Use: Results from a Household Survey,” found “evidence that compared with other groups, African Americans may provide less valid information on drug–use surveys. The findings suggest that African American respondents had significantly lower concordance rates. … Mediation was found in one model (cocaine) for one variable (SES), which may suggest some limited support for the cultural deficit model. Nevertheless, the finding that SES was not a consistent mediator of underreporting … [and] in general, none of the theories of mediation received strong support from this evaluation. Overall, the results replicate and extend a growing body of research suggesting that African Americans under–report substance use on surveys.” The 2005 study, in other words, found that even socio–economic status did little to diminish the impact of race in mis–reporting drug use on surveys. But as far as the raw numbers “without mediating effects entered, compared with African Americans, Hispanics have two and one–half times the odds of providing concordant responses … and Whites have over 25 times the odds of providing concordant responses.”

In fact, the findings of these study weren’t even new. All the way back in 1992, a study found that “ … intravenous drug users who were black or whose primary drugs of choice were injected cocaine and crack were more likely than other groups to misrepresent their current drug use status.” In 1994, a study of “The validity of drug use reports from juvenile arrestees” found that “Race/ethnicity [was] the most important predictor of cocaine use disclosure among those testing positive for this drug.” Yet, “Comparing the validity of self-reported recent drug use between adult and juvenile arrestees” finds that “adult arrestees are even more inclined to underreport their recent use of illicit drugs [than youth].”

And even beyond variability in the accuracy of self–reported drug use, The Department of Justice notes an important fact about variability in the self–reports themselves—it turns out that (in 1995) even if black and white respondents did in fact admit to using drugs at equal rates, they weren’t admitting to using the same amount of drugs“Among black drug users, 54% reported using drugs at least monthly and 32% reported using them weekly. Such frequent drug use was less common among white drug users. Among white users, 39% reported using drugs monthly and 20% reported using them weekly.” The pattern can still be found in the data from 2011 (chart taken from here), where the race ratio of admission of illicit drug use in lifetime begins at 17 whites for every 15 blacks—drops to 14.9 whites for every 15 blacks when considering admission of drug use in the past year—and finally inverts to 9 whites for every 11 blacks when admission of drug use in the past month is considered. The 2011 data doesn’t mention admission to drug use in the past week, where the ratio would likely invert even more so. And these are the same reports we have good reason to believe African–American respondents less frequently report accurately to in the first place.

If self–reports are a terrible way to estimate actual rates of drug use, then, do we have anything better?

It turns out that we do. While also imperfect, one of the most reasonable methods that we do have of estimating the racial breakdown of drug use in the general population is by looking at data on the racial breakdown of admissions to hospitals—and subsequent medical reports in cases of death—for illicit drug use, which data is recorded each year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In 1994, reports found that amongst white patients admitted to emergency room visits in cases involving drug use, 14% mentioned the use of cocaine, while 8.4% mentioned the use of heroin, and 6.8% mentioned the use of marijuana. Amongst black patients, these numbers change to a whopping 54.5% for cocaine, 18.4% for heroin, and 10.7% for marijuana. Numbers for Hispanic patients are inbetween the white and black rates for cocaine (26.5%), more similar to black patients’ reported menton of heroin (18.7%), and more like white patients’ reported mention of marijuana (6.2%). Across the years of 1988–1994, an average of about 33,000 white emergency room visitors mentioned use of cocaine per year. Meanwhile, in the same years, an average of about 59,000 black emergency room visitors mentioned cocaine. Very crudely, if whites were about 75% of the population and blacks were about 12%, for a population of ten million this would mean that about 0.4% of the white population of 7.5 million and about 4.9% of the black population of 1.2 million were using cocaine—more than a tenfold difference. 

For heroin? An average of 18,000 white visitors per year mentioned it, compared to 17,500 black visitors. Plugging our simplified numbers back in, this would mean about 0.24% of the white population and about 1.46% of the black population used heroin across this period of years—more than a sixfold difference. An average of 11,250 white visitors mentioned marijuana, compared to an average of 8,250 black visitors—0.15% of the white population versus 0.688% of the black population—a 4.5 times larger percentage of the black population. In 1995, medical examiners in cases of death reported cocaine (see table 42) in 32.8% of deceased whites, compared to 69.6% of deceased blacks. Cocaine was reported in deceased Hispanics by medical examiners inbetween the white and black rate, at 55%; but heroin was highest for deceased Hispanics of all, at 56% (compared to 44.3% for deceased whites and 43.8% of deceased blacks). Across the years of 1987–1995 (see table 43), the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program found that an average of 33.3% of white arrestees tested positive in urinalysis for cocaine, whereas an average of 62.6% of black arrestees did.

In 2011, we can update these statistics to the following (with the caveat that in about 15% of emergency room visits, race is unknown): Of 505,224 ER visits for cocaine, 185,748 (36.7% of total) were white and 236,089 (46.7% of total) were black—a 27% increase. Altogether, of 1,252,500 ER visits for illicit drug use (including alcohol), 634,593 (50.7% of total) visitors were white, and 384,317 (30.7% of total) were black—a much larger black–white ratio than the 12%–77% ratios African–Americans and Caucasians respectively compose of the general population. While it is difficult to nail an exact estimate of the racial breakdown of drug use throughout the general public with these numbers, they are most certainly better than rates of self–report, and they most definitely indicate that rates of drug use are in fact higher among African–Americans in general (and for cocaine in particular). Yet, even if African–Americans are simply more likely to use drugs in irresponsible ways resulting in medical problems or death, this too would suggest a very high probability that these individuals are likely using drugs in more generally dangerous—as well as publically visible—ways that would either justify, or help explain, why a higher percentage end up arrested.

Methamphetamine is one drug for which the vast majority of self–reported use, arrests, and hospitalizations are of white users—just 5.6% of black visitors who were admitted to emergency rooms for drug–related issues mentioned it in 1994, for example, compared to 70% of white visitors. In fact, this relatively corresponds to the rates of arrests for methamphetamine: “In 2006, the 5,391 sentenced federal meth defendants [nearly as many as the 5,619 crack defendants!] were 54% white, 39% Hispanic and 2% black.” Furthermore, “the federal methamphetamine–trafficking penalties … are identical to those for crack.  [Yet] no one calls the federal meth laws … anti–white.”

According to a 2011 report to Congress on the impact of mandatory minimum policies on federal sentencing, “Approximately two–thirds of the 23,964 drug offenders in fiscal year 2010 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. More than one–quarter (28.1%, n=4,447) of drug offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty involved powder cocaine, followed by crack cocaine (24.7%, n=3,905), [and then] methamphetamine (21.9%, n=3,466)…. The application of mandatory minimum penalties varies greatly by the type of drug involved in the offense. For example, in fiscal year 2010, a mandatory minimum penalty applied in 83.1 percent (n=3,466) of drug cases involving methamphetamine.  Crack cocaine (82.2%) and methamphetamine cases (83.2%) had the highest rates of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.” If racism were the cause for the crack–powder cocaine sentencing disparities—which we have already seen is historically misleading anyway—why would racist policymakers turn around and then institute equally severe penalties for a drug overwhelmingly used by whites? The report further notes that “The average sentence for methamphetamine offenders who remained subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at the time of sentencing … was 144 months, which is the highest average sentence for any drug type.” Even further, “Black methamphetamine offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty and subject to the mandatory minimum at sentencing had the lowest sentences, on average, of any racial group (131 months)”—compared to 143 months for whites. Methamphetamine would seem to be an excellent case study for testing whether we treat drugs like cocaine more seriously as an excuse for jailing African–Americans, or simply because we treat hard drugs in general seriously—regardless of who uses them most.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

[1] It should go without saying that the question I am interested in here is not whether the drug war is an effective policy in general—only whether it’s enforcement is, either in intent or in practice, “racist”. One could perfectly well accept the conclusion that the drug war is not “racist” and still believe that its repeal would be beneficial for black and white Americans alike—I take no position on this question here, except to note that the commonly cited “decriminalization” policies in Portugal treat drug use as a non–criminal, medical health issue, but did not decriminalize drug dealing (in drug policy debates, this is in fact the definition of the word “decriminalization;” but this technical distinction is typically lost on the general reading public, and frequently left unexplained in articles addressing the subject).  Furthermore, correlation–causation questions are also more complicated than often assumed where the question of what impacts Portugese drug policy changes have had per se is concerned.

[2] Smack: Heroin and the American City by Eric C. Schneider, p.130–131; p.133

[3] “Organized Crime and Illicit Traffic in Narcotics,” Hearings before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), 760.

[4] “Mark T. Southall, Leader in Harlem,” New York Times, 30 Jun. 1976, 35; “Mark Southall Dead, Former Assemblyman,”New York Amsterdam News, 3 Jul. 1976, A1.] Amongst his requests was “mandatory prison sentences for convicted dope pushers….” [“Southall Hits Drugs In Harlem,” New York Amsterdam News, 16 Dec. 1961, 13.

[5] “Dempsey Gratified in His Anti-Dope Drive,” New York Amsterdam News, 1 Sept. 1962, 23.

[6] “Harshest in the Nation: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Widening Embrace of Punitive Politics,” by Jessica Neptune

[7] Sundiata Acoli’s August 15, 1983 testimony in United States v. Sekou Odinga et al., in Sundiata Acoli’s Brinks Trial Testimony, a pamphlet published by the Patterson (New Jersey) Black Anarchist Collective, p. 21.

[8] Kes Kesu Men Maa Hill, Notes of a Surviving Black Panther: A Call for Historical Clarity, Emphasis, and Application (New York: Pan-African Nationalist Press, 1992), p. 71; Dhoruba Bin Wahad, interviewed by Bill Weinberg, “Dhoruba Bin Wahad: Former Panther, Free at Last,” High Times 241 (September 1995), < HIGHTIMES.COM > Mag. html > [Accessed January 12, 1999]; Assata Shakur, op. cit., pp. 162-72; Clayborne Carson, in Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p . 298.

[9] Jack Newfield, “My Back Pages,” Village Voice, January 18, 1973

[10] Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930 (New York: Harper & Row, 1996), 115.

[11] Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, vol 1. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 272.

[12] “Excerpts from Governor Rockefeller’s Message Delivered to the Opening Session of the Legislature” New York Times, 6 Jan. 1966, 16.

[13] Earl Caldwell, “Group in Harlem Ask More Police,” New York Times, 4 Dec. 1967, 1.

[14] Homer Bigart, “Middle-Class Leaders in Harlem Ask Crackdown on Crime,” New York Times, 24 Dec. 1968, 46.

[15] Richard Reeves, “Survey Confirms Politicians’ Views of Attitudes of Ethnic-Group Voters,” New York Times, 25 Oct. 1970, 1.

[16] Maurice Carroll, “After Crime, Big Issues Are Prices and Fares,” New York Times, 17 Jan. 1974, 36; David Burnham, “Most Call Crime City’sWorst Ill,” New York Times, 16 Jan. 1974, 113; Nathaniel Sheppard, “Racial Issues Split City Deeply,” New York Times, 20 Jan. 1974, 1.

[17] Leroy Clark, “What Does Civil Liberties Mean in the Drug Context?” Amsterdam News, January 13, 1973.


One response to “Is the War on Drugs Racist? The Surprising Truth Behind the Black Curtain of History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: