Legal Racism

Back in the days when progressive Republicans were still part of our political landscape, Nelson Rockefeller, as Governor of New York and the 41st Vice President, served our country well. It is ironic, therefore, that perhaps the most socially damaging legislation in the last 50 years bears his name.

The Rockefeller drug laws, which called for mandatory minimum sentencing – often five to ten years for low level, first-time drug offenders — have to some extent been rolled back in New York State. But elsewhere they continue to undergird the so-called War on Drugs, which has turned the United States into what can only be called a “prisoner nation.” We incarcerate more individuals per capita than any other country in the world, including Russia and South Africa. We lead most other nations by a factor of at least six to one.

What’s worse, these sentencing practices, and the War on Drugs more broadly, have been instruments in the creation of a new system of racial oppression that parallels slavery before the Civil War and “Jim Crow” in the years following it.

In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness”, Michelle Alexander argues that primarily through a combination of rhetoric and drug law enforcement we have conflated crime and race in a way that is creating a permanent underclass of African Americans. In all but 14 states individuals convicted of drug (and other) felonies are denied the franchise, are virtually unemployable even in good economic times, and are denied access to food stamps, public housing, and income supports such as TANF.

Alexander points out that “the impact of the new caste system is most tragically felt among the young…In Chicago (as in other cities across the United States) young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college… In fact, there were more black men in the state’s correctional facilities that year (June, 2001) just on drug charges than the total number of black men enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in state universities.”

Drug use is roughly the same across all ethnic groups (National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). And yet, according to Human Rights Watch, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate more than 13 times higher than white men. Why are the arrest numbers and the severity of sentencing so much greater for African Americans? We cannot escape the shameful reality that these facts are about discriminatory law enforcement. They are about race rather than crime.

Protestants for the Common Good has made drug policy reform a major goal of our Common Good Agenda. We are proud to be a member of the Adult Redeploy Oversight board, which was created as part of the Crime Reduction Act passed last year. It calls, among other things, for diversion as an alternative to incarceration in Illinois. This bill is only a first step in reversing the profound social damage of the so-called War on Drugs, and the mandatory sentencing that helped to initiate it. In the bankrupt and broken state that is Illinois, the passage of this bill was a major feat. We will seek to expand its reach, and fight for new measures of fundamental drug policy reform, in the months and years to come.

Michelle Alexander will be speaking at Hartzell United Methodist Church on July 10. PCG will help to support this event, and we urge you to attend, and bring others as well. Together we must heed, and act upon, her message that “No task is more urgent for racial justice advocates today than assuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last.”

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