Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Blacks are Everyday People: Baltimore and the Drug War

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[Updated below]

In a post perhaps better entitled “Official makes offensive, ludicrous claim,” but actually entitled Batts: Crime dropped for “everyday citizens” in 2013, Justin Fenton ‏points us to this statement by Baltimore top cop.

With murders, non-fatal shootings and street robberies up in 2013, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts emphasized in television interviews Monday that crime affecting “everyday citizens” was moving in the right direction.

“It’s not throughout the city as a whole,” Batts told WBAL-TV of the violence. “It’s very localized and unfortunately, it’s with African American men who are involved in the drug trade and 80 to 85 percent of the victims are involved in the drug trade going back and forth.”

As Fenton points out, “Batts also said that ’80 to 85 percent’ of victims of violence were African-American men involved in the drug trade. But overall, only 84 percent of city homicide victims are black men” and “police determined a drug motive in just 3 of 224.” Three.

Apparently, the city of Baltimore seems to treat black murder victims like the Administration treats drone victims: presumed guilty. In Baltimore, black men aren’t “everyday citizens”, more like occasional citizens, or for special occasions. Of course, this is pretty standard across the country, but it’s always interesting to see those moments when those responsible for such policies admit what they are up to. In fact, the entire war on drugs is premised on treating black men as a class as presumptively criminal, on treating people of color as something less than full and equal persons.

This despite the fact that white people use drugs just as often if not more. But we know they are not targeted for enforcement. Besides, if we’re going to treat anyone as presumptively criminal, it should be rich white guys in expensive suits on Wall Street. Unlike marijuana use, their illegal activities have lead to all manner of damage to this country. And while often proponents point to the violence that is part of the drug trade (to justify going after drug users and low-level dealers, not those committing the violence or higher level dealers) it is the illegality of the trade, combined with a lack of legitimate opportunities, that leads to violence. Our criminal justice policies are criminogenic–they produce the very thing they are supposedly designed to fight. Sadly, this is not unusual. Money used to treat black men as criminals could be used to build schools, roads, provide jobs, house the homeless, or prevent violent crime. Yet when you call for doing those things, serious people insist we cannot afford it.  (Remember, when they say ‘we can’t afford it’, they mean ‘assuming we continue to waste your money on all this evil stuff that enriches us’.)  City Councilman Carl Stokes put it well, saying “The ordinary citizens who are living in neighborhoods that are distressed, they are very much continuing to be victims of crime either directly by being injured, or living in fear and not wanting to venture out of let their kids play outside.” These people are doubly victimized: robbed of the opportunity and security that some other people can take for granted, and then assumed to be criminal (and therefore worthless) when this leads to their death.

It’s fine to point out how pointless the Drug War is, that massive amounts of money it wastes, all the things that could “help the middle class” that are treated to too expensive while spending on policing, surveillance and prisons balloons. It’s all true.  It should all be persuasive. But when these things are at the center of the argument, or worse when they are all there is to the argument, something very important is missed: the so-called War on Drugs is immoral and racist. It is inconsistent with our professed fundamental ideas about rights and citizenship. Step one is to make all the policymakers, from the top to the bottom, answer questions like if they think every black man killed in Baltimore is a criminal, or whether activities which are a normal part of the lives of rich white kids should be cause for ruining the lives of poor black kids, or whether locking up millions while shredding the rights of even more can outweigh the alleged harms of drug use. While we’re at it, we should ask them, and ourselves, whether those same aggressive, racialized police tactics should be used in schools for all manner of minor rule infractions, pushing the most disadvantaged students through the school-to-prison pipeline.

Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is a racial caste system, one which arose in the wake of the dismantling of Jim Crow that was at least nominally race-neutral (as required by post-Civil Rights Movement norms).  Further she argues that how the challenge comes will determine whether we simply transform this form of racial caste system into a different one or we end it entirely (my emphasis):

I argue that nothing short of a major social movement can successfully dismantle the new caste system. Meaningful reforms can be achieved without such a movement, but unless the public consensus supporting the current system is completely overturned, the basic structure of the new caste system will remain intact. Building a broad-based social movement, however, is not enough. It is not nearly enough to persuade mainstream voters  that we have relied too heavily on incarceration or that drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime. If the movement that emerges to challenge mass incarceration fails to confront squarely the critical role of race in the basic structure of our society, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion and concern for every human being – of every class, race, and nationality – within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge–one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of mass incarceration was not predicted by anyone thirty years ago. No task is more urgent for racial justice today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last.

We have a long ways to go before achieving the ideal of equal personhood.

[Update]: This interview conducted by Bill Moyers with Michelle Alexander is well worth watching (h/t Jonathan Cohn).

Written by David Kaib

January 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

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