The War We Won’t Talk About

BY Salim Muwakkil

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Many in the black community are reluctant to discuss the drug war’s collateral damage for fear it might tarnish Obama’s glow.

The war on drugs has gotten little traction during this presidential campaign. The last time it was even mentioned was during the Republican debate in September 2007 at Morgan State University in Baltimore, when Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) spoke of its inordinate toll on the black community.

“I think inner-city folks and minorities are punished unfairly in the war on drugs,” Paul had said. “For instance, blacks make up 14 percent of those who use drugs, yet 36 percent of those arrested are blacks and it ends up that 63 percent of those who finally end up in prison are blacks. This has to change.”

Paul is right, but his sense of urgency never caught on. The social injustices encouraged by these policies are seeding unprecedented domestic turmoil, and its racial biases are threatening black America’s viability.

The United States is the world’s leading jailer, and a growing number of those jailed are drug offenders. Between 1980 and 2006, arrests for drug offenses more than tripled, according to a Human Rights Watch study released in May. In 1980, the number of arrests was 581,000. By 2006, it was 1,889,810.

African Americans have paid a heavy toll. In many resource-poor communities, young blacks often are tracked into the underground economy and invariably into the prison pipeline. Incarceration has become a central part of life for at least two generations of black youth.

According to the Sentencing Project, at the current rate of incarceration, one out of every three black males born today can expect to be imprisoned in his lifetime. Drug offenses are the major reason for this. More than 38 percent of all blacks entering prison in 2003 had been convicted of drug offenses, noted the Human Rights Watch report.

On average, one of every 14 black children has a parent in prison. Many cities with high incarceration rates also have serious gender imbalances. In parts of Washington, D.C., there are only 62 men for every 100 women. Black communities in many other parts of the country suffer similar imbalances.

I wrote about the ominous prospects of these imbalances more than three years ago. “There are more than 30 percent more black women than men in Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland,” I noted in June 2005. “In New York City the number is 36 percent, and in Philadelphia, 37 percent.”

Those statistics spell out catastrophe. Yet, discussions of this seem to be off limits, even for Sen. Barack Obama, a black man from the South Side of Chicago – one of the many “ground zeros” of the crisis.

Many in the black community are reluctant to discuss the drug war’s collateral damage for fear it might tarnish Obama’s glow. But shouldn’t someone mention it?

During the heat of the campaign early this year, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a study that documented the disproportionate damage the drug war has caused the African-American community.

“In 2002 … there were five times as many whites using drugs as African American,” the report read. “However our analyses indicate that African Americans are admitted to prison for drug offenses at nearly 10 times the rate of whites.”

JPI’s study is one of many that have made the same point about adverse affects of the drug war and the delusions of the prohibitionists. We should have learned long ago that prohibition and crime are mutually reinforcing.

That symbiotic relationship is crippling much of the black community.

On a weekly talk show I host on Chicago’s only black-owned radio station (WVON-AM), the callers’ most consistent complaint is about neighborhoods brimming with ex-inmates seeking capital but lacking skills. This is another part of the deadly formula keeping much of black America in a descending spiral. That descent will pull all of America down, but many Americans are unaware of the danger.

We have heard much about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but little has been said about a domestic policy that is endangering this nation’s future by threatening black America’s viability.

Expressing the urgency of this task has been left to fringe candidates, such as the libertarian Paul, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney or the independent Ralph Nader.

But the crisis demands mainstream attention because change won’t come until the new president ends the drug war and, with Congress, channels massive investment into education and employment.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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