Race and the Drug War

For communities of color, the war on drugs is an inescapable plague -- it's the fear of imprisonment, early morning massive street sweeps, gang task forces and buy-and-bust operations. It's a family member in lockup, dying of HIV or an overdose. It's a war zone, as tragic as any unfolding in the Middle East or Afghanistan.

Since its inception, the drug war has been characterized by institutionalized racism. Its interrelated effects of a booming prison industrial complex, zero tolerance laws, punitive sentencing, increasing HIV rates within U.S. prisons, criminalized youth and mass disenfranchisement have had a devastating impact on communities of color. As people of color struggle on the frontlines of this war, "tough-on-crime" drug legislation is leading the way to a new era of "Jim Crow."

In recent years, however, both community and drug reform activists have begun to fight back. The drug reform movement itself has gained popularity and political momentum, as more and more Americans are voting for drug reform initiatives and a more humane drug policy. And issues of race --which were traditionally pushed to the margins of the drug reform debate by a predominantly white male, libertarian leadership -- are beginning to get more attention within the movement. Some grassroots organizers are now arguing that the drug reform movement should focus on more than just legalization, and begin to address the destructive effects of the drug war on communities of color.

"You can't talk about racism without talking about the war on drugs," Deborah Small, program coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said in a press release for the upcoming "Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" conference. "Virtually every drug war policy, from racial profiling to prosecutions to length of sentencing, are disproportionately carried out against people of color ... people rarely make the connections."

The connection is made starkly clear by the latest figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 6.6 million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision (1 in 32 adults); 25 percent of the prison population are nonviolent drug offenders, 74 percent of whom are African American.

The effects of the drug war on people of color is every bit as damning and reprehensible as the Jim Crow laws. And at every point in the legal process -- be it arrests, sentencing, or incarceration -- people of color bear the burden our nation's war on drugs.

Racial Profiling & Tulia

There is no better example of the practice of racial profiling than the case of the small Texas panhandle town of Tulia, where 12 percent of the modest African American population was arrested and prosecuted in 1999 on drug charges, based solely on the word of one undercover cop, who was later exposed as corrupt.

The events in Tulia brought national attention to the larger problem of racial profiling in the drug war. Drug enforcement officials focus the majority of their efforts on street-level dealers -- overwhelmingly people of color -- which are the easiest cases to make, all but ignoring dealers higher up on the supply chain.

The racial effects of this policy are clear. The Texas Narcotics Control Program, for example, does not require the task forces to report the racial breakdown of their cases. But an investigation by the Texas Observer of its internal case logs revealed "an unmistakable tale of disproportionate impact: Row after row and page after page of African American defendants, most of them street-level crack dealers."

But Tulia is hardly an exception. The racial disparity in the pattern of arrests and sentencing nation-wide is equally damning. Whites make up 75 percent of the national population, but only 23 percent of prisoners doing time for drug offenses. But African Americans, on the other hand, only comprise 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, yet comprise 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted for drug offenses.

Criminalizing Youth & Women

Young Latino and African American men and women of color arrested for nonviolent drug offenses represent the fastest rising segment of the prison population. They have increasingly become the victims of the brutal drug war waged in the streets of America for the past two decades. The casualties: poor urban youth and women of color. The consequences: families destroyed, young lives lost and communities on lock down.

African American women represent the largest growing segment of the prison population (seven out of ten have a child under the age of 18). Today 200,000 children have incarcerated mothers, and more than 1.6 million have a father in prison. An African American child is nearly nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child, and a Latino child is three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child.

And these children are not doing much better. A report released by Building Blocks for Youth pointed out that the incarceration rate for Latino youth is 13 times the rate of white youth, and 25 times higher for African American youth. Although statistics show that white youth sell and use drugs at the same rate as youth of color, African American and Latino youth are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned at substantially higher rates for drug crimes, accounting today for over 60 percent of drug arrests compared with 14 percent in 1980.

Education, Not Incarceration

From the cradle to the cellblock, the U.S. sends more young African American and Latino youth to prison than to college. The government continues to build more prisons and juvenile detention centers each year, while spending less on education.

Young people have come under increasing scrutiny as part of the escalating drug war. Recent Congressional legislation required forced testing in after-school programs, bans on federal financial aid through the Higher Education Act, zero tolerance, anti-gang loitering and automatic transfer laws, which in effect unfairly target poor African American and Latino youth. Today, 75 percent of all young defendants charged with drug offenses are youth of color.

These young people are often low-level, non-violent drug offenders who get entangled in the prison system, and then become trapped within it. Without economic opportunities, sufficient education or treatment centers in low-income communities of color, they experience a higher rate of recidivism. For many young people of color in low-income communities, arrest has become a way of life. And in many cases the underground drug economy has become the only viable option.

To make matters worse, even after they serve their time, a conviction can destroy their chances of a better life. The Higher Education Act, passed in 1998 by Congress, denies federal aid for higher education to any student convicted of a misdemeanor or felony drug offense, who is more likely to be a person of color.


According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, between 1986 and 1991, the number of African American women incarcerated for drug offenses jumped 828 percent. That's compared with 328 percent for Latinos and 241 percent for White women.

A 1994 Justice Department study of federal prisoners, summarized by the Sentencing Project, found that "women were over-represented among 'low-level' drug offenders who were non-violent, had minimal or no prior criminal history, and were not principal figures in criminal organizations or activities, but who nevertheless received sentences similar to 'high-level' drug offenders under the mandatory sentencing policies."

Laws that further criminalize and punish women of color have multiplied in the course of the drug war. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 contains a "one-strike" law that allows housing officials to evict public housing residents or visitors who have been convicted of a felony at the project or nearby, as well as others who live in the household. This has disproportionately affected elderly women of color, whose relatives have been arrested.

As well as losing government aid and housing, due to an amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, food stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are denied to most men and women convicted of drug felonies. And many women lose their children to the drug war. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a federal law passed in 1997, a parent's right to a child is severed after the child has spent 15 months in foster care.

Pregnant women of color are also unfairly targeted by the war on drugs. Despite similar or equal rates of illegal drug use during pregnancy, African American women are 10 times more likely to be drug-tested, often against their wills, and reported to child welfare agencies for prenatal drug use.

Prisons: Sentencing & Disenfranchisement

Today more than one in three African American men between the ages of 18 and 29 are either in jail, prison, parole or on probation on any given day -- in many neighborhoods more than half of the young African American male population has spent time in prison. This national tragedy is the effect of the punitive sentencing laws that have been an integral part of the war on drugs. Under New York's Rockefeller drug laws, for example, offenders can receive life terms for minor drug offenses.

And once in prison, many people of color lose their most basic right as American citizens. In 13 states, including Florida, they cannot vote even after they are released, which has led to political disenfranchisement and segregation unparalleled since the Jim Crow era .

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Congress began enacting harsh federal mandatory minimum sentences -- sentences that require exorbitant prison terms for certain felonies. Many federal mandatory minimum sentences make it more likely that African American and Latino drug law violators will be incarcerated, and for longer periods of time.

The racial bias of the drug war is glaringly evident in the much harsher mandatory minimums for crack cocaine than powder cocaine -- a 100 to 1 disparity. For example, first-time offenders dealing 50 grams or more of crack cocaine get a 10-year mandatory minimum, the same as for 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. Crack and powder cocaine have the same active ingredient, but crack is marketed in less expensive quantities and in lower income communities of color. Recent studies show that more than 90 percent of persons convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses are African American.

Mandatory minimums continue to fill prisons with nonviolent drug offenders; they were applied in 64 percent of drug cases in 1998 that sentenced first-time offenders to 15 years and more. Many drug offenses now consist of hard time for nonviolent crime, with longer sentences than manslaughter and murder. According the Sentencing Project, almost 77 percent of those sent to jail as drug offenders have never been convicted of a violent felony.

A good example of punitive sentencing is the Rockefeller laws, which were enacted by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973. They are widely considered one of the nation's harshest sets of mandatory sentencing laws. Offenders can receive life terms for possessing or selling small amounts of narcotics. Since their enactment, the laws have contributed to an explosion in the New York state prison population, which mushroomed from 12,500 in 1973 to 71, 472 in 1999. Today in New York, 94 percent of all people in prison on drug charges are African American or Latino.

Locking Up the Vote

According to a report by the Sentencing Project, almost 1.4 million African American men (14 percent of the adult male population) have been temporarily or permanently stripped of the right to vote because of a felony conviction. African American males represent more than 36 percent of the total disenfranchised male population in the United States, although they make up less than the 14 percent of the male population in the United States. Prisoners are counted by the national census as residents of the towns in which they are imprisoned, leaving their hometowns -- often urban communities of color -- with diminished political representation, government funding and ultimately a diminished voice.

There were 437,000 ex-offenders in Florida not allowed to vote in the 2000 national presidential elections (that includes 31.2 percent of all African American men in Florida -- more than 200,000 men). Critics of felony disenfranchisement point out that these thousands of lost votes in Florida would have been a deciding point in the presidential race.

In 47 states, all convicted felons in prison are denied voting rights. Thirty-two states deny those on parole and felons on probation this right. In 13 states (including Florida) ex-felons lose this right for life. This is often referred to as a "civil death" sentence.

It is also what Robin Levy, an attorney in the DPA's Oakland legal office, calls another "destructive collateral consequence" of the war on drugs. Taken together with the other consequential damage done by the drug war, disenfranchisement represents the ultimate failure of the criminal justice system in communities of color.

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