November 30, 2010

Racism, Drug Laws & the American Prison System

            No society on earth locks away its citizens with such consistency and in such massive numbers as the United States of America, which has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. The total number of people incarcerated in American jails reached 2,424,279 in 2008, including 1,518,559 federal and state prisoners, 13,576 territorial prisons, 785,556 local jails, 9,957 in ICE facilities, 1,651 in military facilities, 2,135 prisoners in jails in Amerindian nations, 92,845 in juvenile facilities and an alleged several thousand in foreign, secret and overseas prisons (1). If one includes people on probation or parole, the number inflates to 8 million people. Despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses a staggering 25% of the world’s prisoners. Despite having a population several times larger than the United States, China imprisons about 700,000 less people than the U.S. does. The situation is worsened when you consider that a disproportionate amount of these prisoners are ethnic minorities, targeted by a racist and unjust system. Conditions have dramatically worsened since the enactment of Reaganite drug laws (2) in the 1980s, which have become the main tool for the legal suppression of American ethnic and national minorities. Blacks make up approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but account for nearly half its prison population.

Drug laws flow from popular prejudices – opium fell out of favor as its use became associated with Chinese-Americans and marijuana was illegalized when its use began to feature prominently in jazz music, a predominantly African-American culture (3). Similarly, when crack cocaine began to appear in the United States' African-American communities, its possession was made one of the most severe crimes a person could commit. Unlike, say, marijuana laws, federal crack cocaine laws target small-time dealers rather than suppliers or users. As such, 82% of citizens arrested and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws are African-Americans, although 2/3 of crack users are white. Powdered cocaine, which is much more expensive and less common in poor and ethnically diverse communities, has far less harsh sentencing; under federal law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine earns a defendant the same sentence one receives for being caught selling 500 grams of powdered cocaine (4). Even the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in a report to Congress on cocaine laws, admitted that crack laws “appear to be harsher and more severe for racial minorities than others as a result of this law,” resulting in “unfairness and inconsistency” (5). Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch elaborates:


"The racial disparities in the rates of drug arrests culminate in dramatic racial disproportions among incarcerated drug offenders. At least two-thirds of drug arrests result in a criminal conviction. Many convicted drug offenders are sentenced to incarceration: an estimated 67 percent of convicted felony drug defendants are sentenced to jail or prison. The likelihood of incarceration increases if the defendant has a prior conviction. Since blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites on drug charges, they are more likely to acquire the convictions that ultimately lead to higher rates of incarceration. Although the data in this backgrounder indicate that blacks represent about one-third of drug arrests, they constitute 46 percent of persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts. Among black defendants convicted of drug offenses, 71 percent received sentences to incarceration in contrast to 63 percent of convicted white drug offenders. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of prison admission data for 2003 revealed that relative to population, blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses” (6).


There is simply no question that a dramatic racial disproportion of the incarcerated population exists in the United States of America. The proportions of African-Americans imprisoned are disproportionate in literally every single state in the United States. Hispanic Americans, too, are unfairly victimized, but more so by the United States’ recent turn towards extreme anti-Mexican chauvinism. In Arizona, a law was passed allowing police officers to arrest citizens suspected to be in the state illegally who do not have citizenship papers on their person. It is the state’s Hispanic population that must bear this law as police officers hunt the group of people most generally association with illegal immigration. In this case, Mexican-Americans and those who “appear” to be Mexican-American. Similar legislation was passed in the small town of Fremont, Nebraska, making it illegal to employ or rent housing to illegal immigrants. (7) This measure was taken to combat a rising Hispanic population, which now constitutes 8% of Fremont’s citizens.

Off the books, too, bourgeois law comes down most harshly on ethnic minorities, as racial profiling on an enormous scale has become a standard practice from New York to California, (8) (9) where ethnic minorities are several times more likely to be pulled over and searched by police officers than their white counterparts. Such all-too-common instances of police officers targeting minorities are part of the reason African-American men are incarcerated at a rate almost 6 times higher than white men (6). These and countless other disparities in the United States legal system wreak untold havoc upon the lives of ethnic minorities in the U.S. In 2008, 11% of African-American children and 3.5% of Hispanic-American children had parents who were incarcerated; less than one half of a percent of white children could say the same (6). In 2001, African-American men had a 32.2% chance of being sent to prison in their lifetimes, while Latino men had a 17.2% chance, and Caucasian men only had a 5.6% chance. The effects these horrific prison rates have on culture and families in minority communities cannot be estimated.

            From here, society seeks to systematically alienate and remove minorities from participation in society. Felons can be denied the right to vote, turned down for jobs and generally excluded from their communities. As minorities in the United States are so much more likely to be stopped, arrested, brought to trial and convicted of felony charges than white Americans, this teeming mass of institutional racism cannot be viewed in a more positive light than previous atrocities like the “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws. It is this that is especially appalling about the United States’ ironically named “justice system” – despite centuries of maturation of ideas and concepts, it is still a cheap tool wielded by the wealthy ruling class to oppress and exclude minorities and the poor from society.


Works Cited:


1)      Justice Policy Institute Report: The Punishing Decade, & U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 219416 – Prisoners in 2006. (