The New Ten Crack Commandments

The way crime is prosecuted in America is inextricably linked to race and class. Yeah, yeah. Everyone knows that, right? But it bears repeating for the myopic ‘personal responsibility’ reactionaries: two new reports say black men are more likely to be arrested and convicted on drug offenses even though white and black people use drugs at the same clip. Is it pathology if it’s selectively targeted?

But they note that the murderous crack-related urban violence of the 1980s, which spawned the war on drugs, has largely subsided, reducing the rationale for a strategy that has sowed mistrust in the justice system among many blacks.

In 2006, according to federal data, drug-related arrests climbed to 1.89 million, up from 1.85 million in 2005 and 581,000 in 1980.

More than four in five of the arrests were for possession of banned substances, rather than for their sale or manufacture. Four in 10 of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession, according to the latest F.B.I. data.

Apart from crowding prisons, one result is a devastating impact on the lives of black men: they are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

I would also be remiss in not pointing out that while crack and powdered cocaine are pharmacologically indistinguishable, offenses involving crack (which black people use in greater amounts) were likely to carry harsher sentences than those involving the latter. (Kimbrough could change that. We’ll see.)

But wait? What about inner-city drug dealing and its concomitant violent crime?

Some crime experts say that the disparities exist for sound reasons. Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, said it made sense for police to focus more on fighting visible drug dealing in low-income urban areas, largely involving members of minorities, than on hidden use in suburban homes, more often by whites, because the urban street trade is more associated with violence and other crimes and impairs the quality of life.

“The disparities reflect policing decisions to use drug laws to try and reduce violence and to respond to the demand by law-abiding residents in poor neighborhoods to clean up the drug trade,” Ms. Mac Donald said.

Only one problem with the lock-’em-up logic: there’s no evidence to say it works. As we’ve noted before, this country has been throwing people in jail for drugs at record rates. Nothing has changed, except for a prison population that is getting too big to house.

But what people in low-income urban areas need is not more incarceration but improved public safety, [Ryan S. King of Human Rights Watch] said. “Arresting hundreds of thousands of young African-American men hasn’t ended street-corner drug sales.”

I’m not some AIDS-was-concocted-in-a-lab-to-kill-Negroes conspiracy theorist (big up, Rev. Wright!), but that doesn’t mean that unintentional conspiracies don’t exist — which is what you’d have to call an elected official cynically playing on the racial anxieties of suburbanites in calling for tougher drug laws that give the impression of deterring crime with meaningless arrests but don’t actually do anything.

There are other consequences for this wrongheaded policy. If I can get my David Simon on right quick, police who do nothing but pad stats with penny ante drug arrests never learn how to actually conduct meaningful criminal investigations. And as Jennifer Gonnerman pointed out in Life On the Outside, the deterrent effect of tossing people in prisons is minimized if the prison system becomes a fact of life for everyone they know.

And let’s not forget: all of this feeds into the seemingly invulnerable mythology of black male criminality — belief in which is apparently now sufficient justification for police to open up on civilians.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.