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March 19, 2012

"Keep Fighting Drugs: Giving up is not an answer"

The title of this post is the headline of this National Review Online commentary authored by (my former law school classmate) Artur Davis, who served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.  Here are excerpts from an interesting piece that merits a full read:

On the African-American left, the momentum is building for a rollback of the War on Drugs.  This is a consistently vague agenda; it shifts from legalizing marijuana, to freeing police resources for more urgent matters, to comprehensive sentencing reform, and all points in between.  But at its worst, it is a dangerously misplaced priority, and a sad reminder of the leadership vacuum in the one community that is trapped in a depression.

To be sure, critics of the War on Drugs have some indisputable facts on their side: Prisons at the federal and state level are crowded with relatively inconsequential, low-level dealers who are hardened by their stint behind bars, and who are often rendered permanently voteless and jobless when they resurface.  A disproportionate number of those men, and ever so occasionally women, are black, a factor that helps give prisons the ugly look of a barricaded ghetto.  (See Michelle Alexander’s best-seller The New Jim Crow.)...

Most of these flaws have a valid remedy that policymakers should consider.... All these shortcomings need to be addressed. 

But the War’s sharpest critics would probably consider [sentencing] reforms to be piecemeal and tepid. Their rhetoric, if not their specific proposals, suggests that they would be dissatisfied with any regime that stresses incarceration and punishment, and that they would distrust even a system that treats the bit players differently from the ringleaders.  According to this view, the status quo is so steeped in disparity and so invidious in its purpose that it would take something quite close to disarmament to undo the damage.

Michelle Alexander’s recent work, for example, explicitly ties the origins of the War to the rise in conservative, law-and-order politics and to a backlash against the assertiveness of the civil-rights movement.  Her charge ignores the objective facts that (1) the crack trade exponentially expanded in the Eighties, and (2) the users who were maimed by the drugs and their trade were overwhelmingly African-American. Her book offers a strangely sympathetic treatment of the viciously predatory men who ran that trade and built mini-fortunes from it....

John McWhorter, in The New Republic, makes a claim even more circuitous than Alexander’s: that it’s the drug crackdown — and not the drug epidemic itself, or the explosion of births out of wedlock, or crushing poverty, or abysmal education, or the insidious gang culture — that is responsible for the rise in inner-city alienation. That is a sweeping underestimation of every destructive trend in distressed communities, and it is as single-mindedly wrong as Alexander’s effort to read right-wing politics into what was, after all, predominantly a crackdown on black-on-black crime. (It is worth noting that, for all their flaws, drug sentences are the rare instance in which crimes with black victims are consistently punished severely.)

There is of, course, a cruel set of ironies at work here.  In associating the devastated lives of young, poor black men so tightly with the War on Drugs, liberals are doing exactly what the most unfeeling conservatives do when they collapse all inner-city black men into vignettes of current and future street criminals.  In arguing that incarceration and punishment drive poverty in the black community, the Left is unintentionally mimicking the Right’s bias that poverty is secondary to a pattern of criminal irresponsibility in the destruction of the ghetto.  In its zeal to encourage a radical scaling back of the drug laws, the Left is short-changing the importance of education, jobs, and community reinvestment — in other words, it is de-emphasizing priorities in the same way the Right is accused of doing.

A lot can and should be said about Davis's notable perspective on these issues, but I think the folks at National Review do his commentary a significant disservice by giving it the title that headlines the piece.  Davis is making an interesting (though surely contestable) claim that racial sentencing disparities and the impact of the drug war is not a healthy focus for those principally concerned with the state and future fate of black community.  But that claim does not amount to significant advocacy for continuing the drug war, it just is an effort to urge a certain group of advocates not to put too much emphasis on this front.

March 19, 2012 at 05:09 PM | Permalink


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The War on Drugs is another Harvard Law grad inspired government make work waste of tax dollars. It provides federal price supports to the enemies of the nation, and its adherents are collaborators. They should be investigated for funding by front organizations owned by parties interested in maintaining these price supports. If they receive funding from Cartel owned businesses, they should be arrested tried and executed for treason.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 20, 2012 6:37:12 AM

'Davis is making an interesting (though surely contestable) claim ...'

I'd prefer the word 'contemptible' to 'contestable'

Posted by: lax | Mar 20, 2012 5:28:31 PM

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