Victory in Tulia, But Not in Drug War

Texas authorities claimed that the release of the 12 blacks jailed on trumped up drug charges was proof that justice can and will prevail even in the most blatant racial-tinged drug cases. But don't uncork the champagne yet. The Tulia case was unique in two appalling ways. With one exception, all those swept up in the drug busts were black. They were arrested solely on the dubious, and unsupported word of a tainted white undercover cop. Authorities cavalierly ignored testimony and evidence that could have proved the innocence of many of the black defendants. Even though the case drew national attention and outrage, it still took nearly four years before a retired Texas judge recommended that their convictions be tossed out and that the 12 be released.

tuliaIn early June, Texas governor Rick Perry signed a law that allowed the defendants to make bail, but it applied only to the Tulia prisoners. It's also unclear whether state officials will take action to release the Tulia defendants who entered plea bargains out of fear of languishing in prison for years.

Despite the massive press attention, and public outrage over Tulia, Tulia officials have given no sign that they will publicly admit that the blacks were jailed because of race and not drug use.

Despite the still unresolved issues in the Tulia travesty, the case again tossed the ugly spotlight back on the blatant racism in the war on drugs. Experts have repeatedly pointed out that the profile of a typical drug user is a young, middle-income white. The Justice Department's 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that white students were four to five times more likely to sell and use drugs than blacks. And other studies have confirmed that whites use drugs as much if not more than blacks.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe reviewed thousands of unwarranted traffic stops by police officials in Massachusetts. It found that blacks were far more likely to be stopped and their cars searched than whites. But it also found that the relatively few whites that were stopped were far more likely to possess drugs and illegal contraband than the blacks. It would have been much more interesting if the paper had done a follow-up study to determine what charges were brought against the white drivers stopped, and if tried and convicted, whether they actually received jail sentences.

The disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks has been glaring. More than 70 percent of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences are blacks.

The top-heavy drug use by young whites has stirred no public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions, and tough prison sentences for white middle-class addicts. Those whites unlucky enough to get popped for drug use or sale -- there was one in Tulia -- are treated with compassion, hand wringing sympathy, prayer sessions and expensive psychiatric counseling, treatment and rehab programs, private treatment centers, and drug diversion programs. And they should be, but so should those blacks and others victimized by discriminatory drug laws.

Voters and legislators in California, New York, and other states now recognize that bankrupting state budgets to lock up and toss the key at non-violent drug offenders won't win the war on drugs. They have opted for drug diversion, treatment and counseling programs rather than jail as the far more effective, humane, and cost effective way to deal with drug users. This has brought some measure of sanity back to drug enforcement policy.

Still, the public scapegoating of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. The conservative assault on job, income, and social service programs, a crumbling educational system and corporate shrinkage, and unemployment rates among young black males that even in the best of times continue to be double even triple that of whites, has dumped more blacks on the streets with nowhere to go. Some have chose guns, gangs, crime and drugs.

The drug and crime surge turned some black communities into battlegrounds. Black leaders have launched anti-drug crusades and marches and demanded more police, and harsher jail terms for drug offenders. This further embedded the widespread notion that the drug problem is exclusively a black problem. This has made it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and bloat state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while feeding the illusion that the drug war is being won.

The shouts and tears of joy among the Tulia 12 and their friends and families are justifiable and welcome. But that joy will be short lived as long as state and federal officials continue to wage the war on drugs as a war on blacks.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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