The United States, rarely shy about condemning other nations for human-rights abuses, will get a dose of its own medicine when the World Conference Against Racism opens in Durban, South Africa, on Friday.
The target: America's "war on drugs" and the charge that it is inherently racist because black men are being imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of white men.
A team of U.S. lawyers, clergy, drug-policy and alternative-incarceration experts, organized as the Campaign to End Race Discrimination in the War on Drugs, will assert that America's criminal-justice system has been turned into an "apartheid-like" device.
"We don't want to see the United States continue to get off the hook on this," says Deborah Small of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, one of the U.S. delegates. "There has been a lot more attention about racial profiling and to the death penalty internationally than to the drug war. But there is no other public policy in the U.S. that affects so many people detrimentally."
The campaign last week also released a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling on leaders in Africa and the international community at large to speak out against the United States for allegedly racist pursuit of its drug war.
What are we to make of this attempt to make an international cause celebre of our drug and incarceration policies?
I'd like to say it's based on exaggeration, oversimplification and half-truths. But I can't.
The motivation behind our drug wars, our mandatory minimum sentences, our willingness to let our incarceration rate balloon to the highest in the world, was not race but "law-and-order" politics. Yet, the impact of our policies has become profoundly racist. We know it. We just do precious little to correct it.
Consider: According to the Washington-based Sentencing Project, African Americans are 13 percent of drug users but represent 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences.
And there's little mystery why. First, there's location: Poor black city neighborhoods not calm white suburbs are the scene of massive street sweeps, buy-and-bust operations.
And then, there's class. Jenni Gainsborough of the Sentencing Project notes: "If you're white middle-class and your kid is on drugs, you call the treatment center. In the inner city, there's no treatment. Your first port of call is the criminal-justice system and it escalates. Once you have a record, every interaction leads to a stronger sanction."
States fed these fires with their tough laws of recent years, and the federal government, if anything, is worse. Under a 1986 federal law, it takes only one-hundredth the amount of crack cocaine (generally more popular in black neighborhoods) to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence as powder cocaine (more popular among affluent whites).
In 1995, one of three American black men between 20 and 29 was either in jail, prison, on parole or probation. In many city neighborhoods, more than half of young black men spend time in prison. Even those inclined to form permanent relationships can't do so from behind bars. As ex-felons, jobs are rare. In 13 states, they can't even vote after their release.
Official policy, says James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League, is leading to "incapacitation of future generations . . . crime, addiction, poverty, hopelessness and despair in the black community."
There are a few shreds of hope. Justice Department figures show the count of Americans behind bars (over 2 million) is starting to level off after its explosive growth in the '90s.
And California's reform Proposition 36, passed in 2000, means nearly 40,000 nonviolent drug users each year will receive treatment rather than being slapped in prisons.
But rolling back the incarceration tide may be tough. During the '90s, states added 528,000 new prison beds, costing $26.4 billion. Many rural areas scrambled to get the prisons and their payrolls. Today, thousands of rural white men guard black city convicts.
Try to close such prisons and localities will likely fight as fiercely as when military bases are threatened with shutdowns, says the Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer. And not just for the jobs. The census counts prisoners where they're incarcerated, not their home cities. Result: the prison towns get extra political clout and government grants; the desperate inner cities lose both.
"Drug prohibition has become a replacement system for segregation," says Ira Glazer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has become a system of separating out, subjugating, imprisoning . . . substantial portions of a population based on skin color."
One winces at the harsh words. Few of the legislators who wrote today's laws anticipated such outcomes. But the results are negative enough to give strong credence to the charges of racist policy being leveled against our country. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company