Are racist drug laws driving black incarceration rates? Might that help explain why blacks are 13 percent of the population but half of all prison inmates?
In 1986, in response to the crack cocaine epidemic that was crushing American inner cities, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which insti¬tuted harsher penalties for crack cocaine offenses than for powder cocaine offenses. For sentencing purposes, the law stipulated that one gram of crack cocaine be treated as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine. Because crack cocaine offenders tended to be black and powder cocaine offenders tended to be white, critics of the law denounced it as racially biased in hindsight. But it’s worth remembering that black lawmakers led the initial effort to pass the legislation.
The harsher penalties for crack cocaine offenses were supported by most of the Congressional Black Caucus, including New York Representatives Major Owens of Brooklyn and Charles Rangel of Harlem, who at the time headed the House Select Com¬mittee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Crack was destroying black communities, and many black political leaders wanted dealers to face longer sentences. “Eleven of the twenty-one blacks who were then members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the law which created the 100-to-1 crack–powder differential,” noted Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. “In light of charges that the crack–powder distinction was enacted partly because of conscious or unconscious racism, it is noteworthy that none of the black members of Congress made that claim at the time the bill was initially discussed.” Kennedy added: “The absence of any charge by black members of Congress that the crack–powder differential was racially unfair speaks volumes; after all, several of these rep¬resentatives had long histories of distinguished opposition to any public policy that smacked of racial injustice. That several of these representatives demanded a crackdown on crack is also significant. It suggests that the initiative for what became the crack–powder distinction originated to some extent within the ranks of African-American congressional officials.”
Despite this history, the crack–powder sentencing disparity would, over the next quarter century, become one of the left’s favorite examples of America’s racist criminal justice system. Barack Obama criticized the law while running for president in 2008 and early in his first term moved to lessen the differential. That effort culminated in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which lowered the ratio to 18 to 1. This was no doubt great news for criminals, but what’s been lost in the discussion is whether such a change leaves law-abiding blacks better off. In 2009 blacks were 85 percent of crack offenders, and sentences for crack offenses averaged twenty-four months longer than those for powder cocaine. Civil rights groups and others who equate racial disparities with racism have used such data to decry the sentencing guidelines as racially unjust, yet they don’t seem overly concerned with whether blacks in the main are helped or hurt when crack dealers are locked up longer for pushing a substance that has devastated urban black neighborhoods. Why is their sympathy with the lawbreakers?
Celebrated left-wing academics like Michelle Alexander reluctantly acknowledge that “some black mayors, politicians, and lobbyists—as well as preachers, teachers, barbers, and ordinary folk—endorse ‘get tough’ tactics” by police and the courts that facilitate the high black incarceration rates that she laments. But is it any great shock that black people without advanced degrees have less sympathy for black thugs? The black homicide rate is seven times that of whites, and the George Zimmermans of the world are not the reason. Some 90 percent of black murder victims are killed by other blacks. Why should we care more about black criminals than their black victims? Still, Alexander dismisses tough-on-crime blacks as ignorant and “confused.”
Liberal elites would have us deny what black ghetto residents know to be the truth. These communities aren’t dangerous because of racist cops or judges or sentencing guidelines. They’re dangerous mainly due to black criminals preying on black victims. Nor is the racial disparity in prison inmates explained by the enforcement of drug laws. In 2006 blacks were 37.5 percent of the 1,274,600 people in state prisons, which house 88 percent of the nation’s prison population, explained Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute. “If you remove drug prisoners from that population, the percentage of black prisoners drops to 37 percent—half of a percentage point, hardly a significant difference.”
It’s true that drug prosecutions have risen markedly over the past thirty years. Drug offenders were 6.4 percent of state prison inmates in 1979 but had jumped to 20 percent by 2004. “Even so,” wrote Mac Donald, “violent and property offenders continue to dominate the ranks: in 2004, 52 percent of state prisoners were serving time for violence and 21 percent for property crimes, for a combined total over three and a half times that of state drug offenders.” Drug-war critics like to focus on federal prisons, where drug offenders climbed from 25 percent of the inmate population in 1980 to 47.6 percent in 2006. “But the federal system held just 12.3 percent of the nation’s prisoners in 2006,” noted Mac Donald. “So much for the claim that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned because of the war on drugs.”
The black inmate population reflects black criminality, not a racist criminal justice system, which currently is being run by one black man (Attorney General Holder) who reports to another (the president). Black crime rates are vastly higher than white crime rates. And it’s hard to see how wishing away this reality, inventing con¬spiracy theories to explain it, or calling those who point it out “racist” will help improve the situation.
Jason L. Riley is an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal. This essay is adpated from his new book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.