Senators Obama and Clinton have brought up the huge racial disparities in U.S. arrests and incarceration, yet have not explained yet what they would do about this distinctive aspect of systemic racism. A New York Times reporter has recently summarized two reports on extreme racial inequality in arrests and incarceration. One report is by the Sentencing Project and the other by Human Rights Watch.
The article accents the all-too-well-known impact of systemic racism in our criminal “injustice system”:(Photo credit) More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are still rising. And despite public debate and limited efforts to reduce them, large disparities persist in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though the two races use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates. (Italics added.)
Same rates of drug use, yet huge racial differences in how those who use drugs are treated by the criminal injustice system. People who read good newspapers and magazines probably have some sense of this reality, but they likely do not know a central fact accented in these reports:
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.
That is, now racially inegalitarian policing has little rationale except for white-racist framing and racial profiling:
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. Others are arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and later released, but with a permanent blot on their records anyway.
The racial differentials are striking:
Two-thirds of those arrested for drug violations in 2006 were white and 33 percent were black, although blacks made up 12.8 percent of the population, F.B.I. data show. . . . [One] report cites federal data from 2003, the most recent available . . . , indicating that blacks constituted 53.5 percent of all who entered prison for a drug conviction.
The Human Rights Watch report adds this bit on the stats too:
Across the 34 states, a black man is 11.8 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, and a black woman is 4.8 times more likely than a white woman. In 16 states, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at rates between 10 and 42 times greater than the rate for whites. The 10 states with the greatest racial disparities in prison admissions for drug offenders are: Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Such extreme bias in the criminal injustice system has huge domino effects, negative impacts, within most African American communities, especially those mostly of working class and low-income families. The Times article cites Ryan King, analyst with the Sentencing Project, on the significance of his report:
“Arresting hundreds of thousands of young African-American men hasn’t ended street-corner drug sales.” A shift of resources toward drug treatment and social services rather than wholesale incarceration, he said, would do more to improve conditions in blighted neighborhoods.
Once again, a sensible approach to what is in effect a public health problem like alcohol abuse and addiction—and is treated that way in numerous more advanced countries—seems beyond the reach of a society whose social problems like crime, as much research shows, are still fundamentally grounded in racism and classism. Once again a recent (March 2008) United Nations report is more concerned with reducing this racial inequality in (photo credit) sentencing than the US government and legal system, which the UN calls on to take action. (See March 2008 Recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination).