Dr. Martin Luther King's Birthday: Is the Drug War the Next Big Civil Rights Issue?
With Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday approaching, we are forced to draw connections between the war on drugs and the disintegration of low-income and black communities in America. As Dr. King so poignantly reminds us in his critique of the Vietnam War, "a time comes when silence is betrayal." With many communities disparately impacted by the drug war, many of us working for justice have come to the realization that America's war on drugs is really a war on families and communities. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must now ask: Has this assault on the poor and the marginalized has become the next big civil rights struggle?
Civil rights advocates are honoring Dr. King's legacy by standing up against the "new Jim Crow" - mass incarceration and the racially disproportionate war on drugs. It is impossible to talk frankly and honestly about racism without talking about the drug war. Few U.S. policies have had such a devastating effect on Blacks, Latinos and other racial minorities than the drug war. Every aspect of the war on drugs - from arrests to prosecutions to sentencing - is disproportionately carried out against minorities.
One great example of this is the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity that has reinforced our country's historically racist attitudes toward minorities. For two decades, a person with just five grams of crack cocaine received a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. The same person would have to possess 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same punishment. This discrepancy, known as the 100-to-1 ratio, was enacted in the late 1980's and was based on the myth that crack cocaine was far more dangerous than powder. The 100-1 ratio caused many problems, including perpetuating racial disparities which targeted low level offenders, especially blacks. Advocates pushed to eliminate this disparity for many years and only recently managed to convince law makers to reduce the 100-1 disparity to 18-1. The repeal also eliminated the five year minimum for simple possession for five grams of cocaine. This was the first repeal of a mandatory minimum drug sentence since the 1970's and has reduced the federal prison population and saved an estimated $42 million in criminal justice spending over the first five years.
The crack/cocaine disparity laws bring a host of questions to mind. Why are black men imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of white men despite equal rates of drug use and selling across races? How do we begin to address the connections between astronomical rates of incarceration, disintegration of black families, and the war on drugs?
These questions and many more will be addressed at a town hall forum at First Baptist Church in Washington, DC on Friday, January 14. The forum - "Ending the 40 Year Drug War: Promoting Policies That Rebuild/Reclaim Our Families and Communities" - will bring together a diverse group of scholars, community activists, social service providers, and religious and political leaders. They will discuss viable alternatives to the quagmire of the misdirected war on drugs, which has torn apart the fabric of many communities.
Hopefully the legacy of Dr. King will be carried on in an attempt to solve the problems associated with the black community. Our goal is that both panelists and attendees will be guided to action by Dr. King's wisdom: "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight".
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