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March 2006
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We need a Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Drug War

A couple of recent items reminded me of something that should never be forgotten. The drug war is inherently racist. There are a number of reasons that this is so, and not all of them involve actual racist attitudes by law enforcement — the drug war and laws themselves have been constructed in ways to reinforce cultural differences.
Additionally, in some instances, African American communities have called for more drug war — much like the grieving parents of an overdosed child, they grieved over the extraordinary violence in their community, and mistakenly thought that more enforcement was the answer, not realizing that prohibition was fueling the violence.
Recent items:
“bullet” In a Grits for Breakfast piece:

Black drivers are 2.7 times more likely than whites when stopped by police to be asked to consent to a search of their vehicles during traffic stops in Lufkin, and Latinos are 1.9 times more likely to be asked than whites, according to a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, using 2004 data collected and released by Lufkin Police.

“bullet” And in a completely different neighborhood, in Brattleboro, Vermont

Racial or ethnic minorities in this southern Vermont town have had a disproportionate amount of contact with local police, and more than 80 percent of respondents to a survey released Monday said they believe racial profiling is a problem.[…]
Several people who attended Monday’s news conference agreed with the report’s findings, including Alice Diorio, a counselor with the Vermont Harm Reduction Coalition. She said the roots of racial profiling by police are in the United States’ drug policy. “The stops are happening because we are involved in a drug war that is focused on racial profiling,” she said.

“bullet” I was riding with a group of African American co-workers the other day and one of them was talking about how her husband works at night and drives home through town. He now takes the long way, because the shortest route took him through a part of town where the police would invariably pull him over. Once he got the same cop that pulled him over the night before and he said “Don’t you remember me?” They were laughing about this, and I blurted out “But that’s illegal!” They stared at me for a moment like I was from outer space, and she said “True. But what are you going to do about it?”
Although almost five times as many whites use illegal drugs as African Americans, nearly twice the number of black men and women are being put behind bars for drug offenses. And even then, the length of sentences are racially disparate. Compare crack cocaine (those convicted were 85% black, although only 1/3 of crack users are black) with powder cocaine (those convicted were approximately 27% black). Same drug, used different ways. For powder, you have to have 500 grams or more to invoke the five year sentence. But for crack, all you need is 5 grams and it’s a mandatory 5 year sentence, even if it’s a first offense.
So why don’t we have charismatic African American leaders creating a Drug War Peace march? We need them. We need African Americans to demand that their representatives in government address the drug war.
Fortunately, there is an organization — the National African American Drug Policy Coalition (NAADPC) that’s trying to do something, and they’ve got a lot of great organizations and people involved (Kurt Schmoke is co-chair). I worry a little that, because of the size of their coalition, they’ll try to play it “safe” in their calls for reform. But still, it’s an important step.
Unless there’s a new Martin Luther King, Jr. ready to step up.

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