As our financial crisis deepens and the schisms between the haves and the have-nots continue to open, American drug laws are beginning to gather an increasingly harsh spotlight. But so what, it's not like the War on Drugs has done anything to increase the growing level of economic disparity in America... does it?
A lot happened in 1973. It was a few years after Nixon slammed the gold window shut, the waning hours of a decapitated Civil Rights movement, when the kindling of an energy crisis was beginning to pile up, and the year that marks our disentanglement from Vietnam.
But it also marks the year the Rockefeller Drug Laws were passed, and the precise year that the income gap between black and white begins to widen back out, instead of closing - as it had been up until that year.
Is that just a coincidence, or is there demonstrable cause-and-effect at work?
Drug laws in America, after all, "have originally been based on racism... all of these laws are based on the belief that there is a class in society that can control themselves, and there is a class in society which cannot."1 The popularly cited motivation for the War on Drugs is that it was a response to the growing numbers of military serviceman who were getting hooked on heroin and other narcotics while serving in the Vietnam War.
Although that was a troublesome issue, when you know the history of all past American drugs laws it quickly becomes apparent that there's no way in hell that was the only impetus behind this wave of anti-drug legislation, and that Nixon was using soldiers' addiction as opportunistic displacement.
Following the Civil War the earliest anti-drug laws were passed in some states, banning the consumption of alcohol. But not, of course, for everyone.
Whites could drink as much as they pleased - as well as use opiates and cocaine, but if you were a minority in much of antebellum America you were prohibited from imbibing or using any drug at all.
At the time it was a widely held belief in American politics that some races, bless their brown souls, simply couldn't control themselves. Furthering the codification of this perception, in 1901 Henry Cabot Lodge spearheaded a law in the U.S. Senate banning the sale of liquor and now opiates as well to all "uncivilized races."
In this case, "uncivilized" was synonymous with "dark." At this point in American history, whites could get as drunk, high, or smacked as they wanted – while the brown-skinned members of American society were completely banned from consuming any intoxicant.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, any violence carried out by a black man against a white could be attributed to the commonly-held caricature of a "cocaine-crazed negro." Newspaper headlines screamed of coked-up black criminals who were SHOT BUT DON'T DIE!, and policemen claiming that WE NEED BIGGER BULLETS! because their current caliber wasn't large enough to stop the crack-crazed negroes they routinely came up against in the line of duty.
However blacks weren't singled out as a racial minority, the first anti-marijuana laws targeted the wave of Mexican immigrants who were spreading across the American South. They were seen, then as now, to be stealing jobs and government resources from resident whites, and so politicians from that region of the country first banned marijuana use by minorities alone, and then eventually altogether.
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Nixon's public claim that the War on Drugs was primarily a response to the growing number of addicted veterans was at best a lie of omission. Taking into account past legal precedent, and the fact that American urban centers were being wracked by a series of seemingly unending race riots, it becomes self-evident that the War on Drugs was simply another page in the story of American anti-drug laws that has always been rooted in racism.
Then in 1973, with Nixon desperately attempting to spin his way out of Watergate, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller passed a set of laws that were soon mimicked by several other states and eventually the entire federal government.
They were minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes that, partially because they included a fifteen-year prison term for possessing even a small amount of narcotics, were the harshest the country had ever seen. The per-capita prison population of the United States remained constant from 1930 to right around 1973, at which point the graph begins an exponential climb that grows steeper and steeper with every passing year.
These counter-narcotics laws that, both by design and in practice, fueled an explosion in our prison population – a population which started disproportionately black - with 90% of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller laws either Latino or black - and only growing to become more so as the years passed. Between 1979 and 1990 blacks made up a steady percent of our overall population, but between those same years blacks went from making up 39% of our drug-related prison population to 53% of it.2
Today that number's down to 51.2%. An improvement, but hardly.
Through the 1980s this disparate growth was fueled by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, one of the hundreds of crime bills passed by state and Congressional legislatures in the 1980s and 1990s. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act imposed the first of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, here five-years in prison without chance of parole for anyone caught selling a substantial-enough amount of heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, or cocaine. This last drug, cocaine, had a unique provision.
You'd receive the same unparolable five-year sentence for selling either 5 grams of crack cocaine as you would selling one-hundred times that much – 500 grams – of powder cocaine. Crack and powder cocaine are pharmacologically the exact same drug, there're only two important differences. One is that crack cocaine is smoked while powder cocaine is snorted. The other is a bit more telling. Powder cocaine was mainly consumed by whites, whereas crack cocaine was the form of choice for innercity blacks.
Critics, for good reason, blasted the law as shamelessly racist.3
America introduced a solution to civil disorder and social injustice that wasn't novel, it's simply grown to become unmatched in scale. By 2003, the percentage of our population in prison dwarfed England's level, our international neighbor whose culture and mores are closest to ours.
We have, proportionally, six-times our population locked up behind bars as our tea-sipping crumpet-munching cousins across the pond. For France and Germany, the difference approaches ten-times as many.
Our prison population has increased five-fold in just thirty years. In terms of the global population, we have just 5% of that but fully a quarter of the world's prisoners.22 And these American prisoners have one common and inescapable denominator that you've almost certainly already stereotyped them with – but for good reason. The stereotype of the black male American prisoner is, among other things, an accurate reflection of reality.
Although only about 12% of the American population is black, over a third of the two-million Americans locked up in prison are black. And although although only 14% of all illicit drug users are black, blacks make up over half of those in prison for drug offenses. A black man is eight-times as likely as a white man to be locked up at some point in his life. At any one time in America, almost a third of black American males in their twenties are under some form of "correctional supervision" – if not actually incarcerated, then either on probation or on parole, meaning they've recently passed through the American penal system.4
This means that as of 1996, a sixteen-year-old kid in America would have nearly a one-in-three chance of spending some time behind bars if he was unlucky enough to have been born black. If he happened to be born white, he'd only face a 4% chance of incarceration – a disparity that's been steadily increasing since then. In Chicago's home state there're 10,000 more black prisoners than black college students, and for every two black students enrolled in college there are five elsewhere in the state either locked up or on parole.5
In 2001 a government survey revealed that the per-capita rate of illicit drug use was only point-two of a percent higher for blacks, and yet three-quarters of those arrested for drug possession were black. Nearly half of all drug arrests in America are for simple marijuana offenses. These statistical realities should do much more than stagger you.
If you're black – they terrify you.
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Throughout history, social uprising have coincided with high levels of economic disparity. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, China's Cultural Revolution, both of Russia's modern revolutions, and even the '79 Iranian Revolution all received a heavy push from economic discontent. It seems as if the poor have some unseen threshold, like they can only get so poor before they lash out violently against the system. Like the odds a social uprising will occur increases in tandem with the level of economic disparity.
And for going on two generations now, America's level of economic disparity has been steadily rising. This ongoing financial crisis may be what finally causes it to crest over.
The precise era that saw a drug-law fueled explosion in our prison population, the early 1970s, are the exact same years that the economic situation of blacks began to starkly worsen and that the gap between rich and poor is wrenched wide open. Beginning in those years and continuing into today, "the economic status of black compared to that of whites has, on average, stagnated or deteriorated."6
Up until 1973, the precise year the Rockefeller drug laws were passed, the difference between black and white median income had been closing. But then that year it changed course, and in "an ominous bellwether... the gap between black and white incomes started to grow wider again, in both absolute and relative terms."7
In the nearly forty years since America's modern drug laws were passed, there has been a massive increase in economic inequality by any measure. In the early 1970's not only did the income gap between black and white begin to widen again, it also becomes much more top-heavily favored to the very rich - who happen to be almost exclusively white as well.
One way to capture it is by examining what portion of America's total income the top 1% of earners receive. The share of that top 1% has nearly doubled since 1970, and it's now the same size as the income earned by everyone in the bottom 40% of earners combined.8
So the very few families who make up the top 1% of all earners have a combined income that matches the incomes of all the families in the bottom 40% of earners.
Looking at economic well-being another way, in terms of financial wealth or "stocks, bonds, real estate, businesses, and other financial instruments," as of 1998 the top 1% of families controlled nearly half of that pie, with the top 20% controlling fully 93% of it. Meanwhile, the bottom 40% of families actually have negative financial wealth - their debts actually surpass their assets.9
And this cavernous gap has only been widening, between 1998 and 2001 the net worth of families in the top 10% of America jumped 69%, significantly more than any other group.10 In the years leading up to that point, between 1988 and 1999, the difference in net worth between black families and white families grew by $16,000 and the gap in net financial assets grew by $20,000. By 2004 white families had an average net worth of $81,000, and black families an average net worth of just $8,000 - roughly a tenth the average white family's.11
With home equity making up 44% of an average American's family's net worth and fully 60% among our middle class,12 the statistics around homeownernship further delineate the racial schisms of American wealth. Not only do blacks pay higher interest rates, have higher downpayments, have less access to credit, get turned down more frequently for loans no matter what's controlled for, and pay what amounts to an 18% "segregation tax" because homes in black neighborhoods have much less equity than homes in white neighborhoods13 - but since 1970 black homes have appreciated in value roughly half as much as white homes.14
And as the real estate market has crashed blacks have suffered much more severely than whites. As it was stated earlier, even when income and credit are controlled for black families now have their homes foreclosed on and are thrown out into the street three-times as often as white families.
Exactly what impact modern drugs laws had on this growing level of racial economic disparity is impossible to know, however it seems more than a little suspicious that so many economic factors line up so well with the passage of our modern drug laws and the incredibly disproportionate number of blacks who were thrown into prison.
But one thing that's not tough to figure out, is whether being exposed to the American penal system increases or decreases someone's propensity for violence.
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Our modern prisons, while not using classic or operant conditioning, appear to be reaching the same ends. Not only does increased incarceration raise the rate of violent crimes at the community level,15 but sticking someone in jail desensitizes them to violence and increases their level of cultural, moral, and social distance from anyone not in their own race.
No where in the modern world is someone more forced to "practice thinking of a particular class as less than human in a socially stratified environment," a crucial step in becoming prepared to take someone's life.16 It is impossible to survive in most prisons without at least loosely aligning yourself with whatever gang your race corresponds to, and steering well clear anything beyond cursory or institutionally-forced interaction with members of another race.
Although America's five-fold per-capita increase in the incarceration rate hasn't seemed to have increased the overall level of violent crime, a study released in 2002 revealed that without the advances in medical technology that we've made since 1970 the murder rate would be between three and four times higher than it is today.17
Numbers aside, there's absolutely no way spending time in prison pacifies someone. And upon their release, prisoners often become ineligible for public housing and are denied welfare. So getting a job and trying to find a legitimate way to support themselves is far from easy for ex-cons, more often then not they feel forced to go back to a life of crime to support themselves and any family they might have.
Unemployment rates as high as fifty-percent are frequently cited by those who have researched and followed the lives of former prisoners. One recent study put the unemployment rate at 60% in the first year after release, and another survey found that two-thirds of the employers surveyed in five large cities would never hire an ex-con.18 Having to state that you've been incarcerated on your job application means that any jobs beyond the most menial and low-paying will likely remain out-of-reach. And in today's turbulent economic times, when even those with advanced college degrees have trouble finding any kind of paid work, the prospect for an ex-con is even more grim.
Due to the incredibly high concentration of blacks in the American prison population, the hope-numbing impact of being held in prison and then being hard-pressed to find employment afterward enforces "the stigma of race [that] remains the unmeltable condition of the black social and economic situation."19
Racism is generally understood in America to have fallen to an all-time low. But this is an illusion, created because our prisons and the hundreds of thousands of black men inside of them are built at sites unseen.
A "subtler and more covert" racism has been enabled as prison populations artificially bend racially specific underemployment rates as "mass incarceration makes it easier for the majority culture to continue to ignore the urban ghettos that live on beneath official rhetoric."20
The Civil Rights movement was marked by dozens and dozens of indelible images of racism that were carried in the media each day – black children being marched past an angry white mob into a newly segregated school, police dogs being sicced on peaceful black protesters, burnt-out remains of bombed black churches, one black man behind a pulpit preaching of Christian love and patience and another black man punctuating with his fist the need for angry black action, crowds full of college students both black and white being sprayed at times by firehoses and other times by bullets.
We've all seen the living, breathing, killing reality of racism in the 1970s. None of us now are able to see its existence now, because racism no longer lives on the front pages of our newspapers and during our evening news – instead it's been suffocated inside poured concrete walls which rise and fall in invisible existence, locked safely out of sight.
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It seems as if the poor have some unseen threshold, like they can only get so poor before they lash out violently against the system. Like the odds a social uprising will occur increases in tandem with the level of economic disparity.
Even the very idea of what it means to be poor is color-coded, as while 1 in 3 blacks live in poverty, less than 1 in 10 whites do. And yet the very definition of poverty itself now varies to the point of absurdity, since "poverty level whites control nearly as many mean net financial assets as the highest-earning blacks, $26,683 to $28,310. For those surviving at or below the poverty level, this indicates quite clearly that poverty means one thing for whites and another for blacks."30
The impact of these facts have echoed across generations, as nearly three-quarters of all black children grow up in homes with no net financial assets. That's nearly double the rate of white kids. And nine in ten black kids grow up in homes without enough monetary reserves to last more than three months at the poverty line if their income were to drop, roughly four times the white ratio.31
Even Eminem seemed to have no sense of the irony that was invoked as his self-consciously white autobiographical film, 8 Mile, highlighted the hopeless plight of Detroit's urban black community that's existed for generations. The 8 Mile district was created in 1941, when a six-foot wall was built around a black enclave that was deemed unfit to accept loans from the Federal Housing Administration. This was "part of a system that divided the whole city, in theory by credit-rating, in practice by colour." And so the segregation that emerged in Detroit "was not accidental, but a direct consequence of government policy."32
This policy of segregated mortgages became known as "red-lining," and by the 1950s one in five black borrowers was paying interest at over 8%, while it was about impossible to find a white family paying more than 7%.33
And yet this economic line extends far past that generation. The fact that blacks are foreclosing at a much higher rate than whites in the current crisis was predestined by the conditions of the loans they received, as banks turn down equally-qualified blacks much more often than whites, and forced blacks to pay higher interest on their loans. Housing values are indelibly color-coded, as the average value of a white house appreciates much quicker than a black house. All of this is snowballing into a collective institutional bias that cost black families at least $82 billion even before this current crisis began.34
Hotlanta served as a case study for mortgage-based racism, as the Pulitzer-winning series in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution "The Color of Money" so aptly captured.
It showed how blacks were routinely rejected for loans which whites in a comparable economic situation were accepted for. And this phenomenon wasn't isolated to one city, as a 1991 study showed that out of 6.4 million mortgage applications nationwide, even after income was controlled for - blacks were rejected twice as often as their white counterparts. However that wasn't the worst of it, in urban centers such as Boston, Philly, Chicago, Minneapolis, blacks were rejected three-times more often than whites.35
Even well-to-do blacks have been unable to escape from this institutional prejudice.
Wealthy black neighborhoods in the DC suburbs have a much tougher time getting loans than low-income white areas, and in Boston blacks living on the exact same street as their white neighbors and earning similar incomes found it much tougher to get a mortgage than their white neighbors. Joe Kennedy summed up the cumulative effect of this racial injustice well, describing "an America where credit is a privilege of race and wealth, not a function of ability to pay back a loan."36
The city of Baltimore partly captures how higher-rate loans to blacks have affected foreclosure rates, with several Wells Fargo loan officers testifying that they targeted "mud people" for "ghetto loans," resulting in 71% of foreclosures in that city being made on black homes in recent years. And so, even when income and credit score are controlled for, across the nation blacks are more than three-times more likely than whites to have their home foreclosed and be thrown out into the streets.
America may have nominally advanced from "separate but equal," however the reality of racial disparity still haunts the bottomlines of black mortgages and checkbooks, holding them back from fully embracing the dream we're all supposed to share.
This racial stratification has created neighborhoods ripe for infection by radical Islamists hoping to begin the accidental guerrilla syndrome. Black neighborhoods have more crime, more poverty, and less governance than wealthy white ones - the ideal conditions for an outside terrorist infection to set in. And the process is made even easier when you consider the effect the prison system has on black communities, isolating young men away from their friends and families and everything they've ever known for years at a time, the ideal circumstances for softening someone up for radicalization.
Once radicalized, they're released back to their old neighborhoods to begin spreading the contagion that had been injected into them in prison while they were held prone by hopelessness, isolation, and fear.
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Perhaps most alarming is that the Department of Justice is manipulating its racial drug-related prison date, in effect lying, to make it seem like our Drug Laws aren't targeting minorities as acutely as they really are. To try and keep up appearances, a few years ago the DoJ decided to simply remove all of the prisoners who were mixed race black-and-white from their data without reflecting this change on any of their tables or in any of their charts.
The DoJ simply shuffled them out of sight, hoping no one would notice or care about a few thousand lives. And for the most part, no one did.
It's clear that the DoJ decided to simply remove mixed black-and-white prisoners from the system because a footnote in the DoJ's statistics opaquely fesses up:
"Data analysis procedures adopted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004 affected the categorization of persons identifying with two or more races... and had the result of a modest reduction in the number of persons identified as non-Hispanic white and black."
Looking at the DoJ's chart, what happened to the percentage of black prisoners in 2004 after the prisoners identified as mixed black-and-white were left out of the calculations?
In 2003, all but 1.2% of the prison population is accounted for, a percentage explained by Asians and other smaller ethnicities not being listed on the chart at all. And then suddenly the very next year in 2004, the exact year the DoJ changes the way it counts prisoners who identified themselves as mixed black-and-white, 7.7% of the total population pool is now missing.
248,000 / 250,900 = 1.2% missing
2004 total: 65,900 + 112,500+ 51,800 = only 230,200 prisoners accounted for
230,200 / 249,400 = 7.7% missing
Using the same calculation the report uses to draw its conclusion that between 1999 and 2005 the percentage of black prisoners drops by 21.6% (dividing the total number of black prisoners from one year by the number of black prisoners the year before), in a single year the percentage of black prisoners seems to have plummeted by 18.2%. However this is simply because, as the above footnote states, in 2004 the DoJ changed the way it categorizes prisoners identifying themselves as of mixed race, both white-and-black.
Apparently it didn't just "affect categorization," in one year the DoJ just removed 6.5% of the data - some 16,200 prisoners - from their calculations entirely.
Maybe through simple bureaucratic incompetence but more likely through a concerted attempt to warp the numbers, people who identified themselves as mixed black-and-white were simply thrown out, and percentages were calculated from an incomplete number that was missing prisoners who identified themselves as mixed.
Because where it really gets damning, is when you put those prisoners back into the system.
For the sake of an argument that will be illustrated shortly, we can assume those thousands belong in the Black column, where they originally were up until 2004. And we'll assume that unaccounted for ethnicities make up 1.2% of the total, the same percentage there was in 2004 when the DoJ quietly changed things up.
That would change the the total number of incarcerated blacks in 2005 from 113,500 to 126,900 , so instead of 44.8% of the total population they now really make up 50% of it. And that 50% is only down 7.6% from 1999 when they made up 57.6% of the population. Even beyond the way the data was heavily massaged, it's staggering that according to DoJ numbers only 14% of regular drug users in 2005 were black and yet they consisted of 50% of those incarcerated for drug offenses.
So now using the statistic highlighted by the media, and instead examining the way the black prisoner population changed year to year - instead of an overall decrease in the Black population from 1999 to 2005 of 21.6% as the chart erroneously states, the adjusted decrease is instead 12.3%. That's nearing half the stated level, a fairly large mistake.
So the Department of Justice is lying about the reality of bias in our prison system, drug laws in America have always been rooted in class control, and the precise year that they began is the same year that black familes were put on the road to own eight-cents for every dollar owned by whites... where does all of this take us?