The war on drugs disproportionately targets black people in the US and UK, exacerbating oppression, says Sebastian Saville.
Crack possession is treated far more harshly than the mainly white drug of choice cocaine powder, says Saville. (Photograph: Mark Read/Corbis)
On September 18 drug campaign group Release held its annual conference in London. To thunderous applause, drug policy reformer and racial equality advocate Deborah Small gave a harrowing account of the plight of her fellow black Americans whose lives are caught up in the vicious interplay of the drugs and race wars being waged by US authorities.
"People say the drug war isn't working," she opines, "but not me - I say it is working, only too well. It's a highly successful method of maintaining the oppression of black people in the United States."
Small points to the disparities in sentencing for cocaine offences as evidence of her claims. When Congress enacted its mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, it singled out crack cocaine for especially harsh treatment; whereas possession of only 5g of crack brings a mandatory five year prison term, it takes 500g of cocaine powder to draw the equivalent. On the US drug scene, cocaine powder is the drug of choice for affluent whites, while crack is associated with urban black society. As a result, the burden of these policies has fallen overwhelmingly on African Americans. These are poor, low-level offenders, and becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system leads them and their communities inexorably into a cycle of imprisonment, unemployment, one-parent families, political disenfranchisement, poverty and crime.
"The war on drugs is the continuation of Jim Crow by another name," Small says. A long-time activist and impassioned speaker, her reference to Jim Crow evokes the bitterness of the black experience of post-civil war America, when the former Confederate southern states enacted a raft of laws named after a minstrel with blackened face whose performance mocked a stereotyped figure of the African American male. The Jim Crow laws replaced slavery with a new regime in which segregation and disenfranchisement underpinned an informal culture of brutality and lynching. Despite the promise of emancipation, once again African Americans were down by law.
According to Small, they still are. "When the civil rights movement succeeded in dismantling Jim Crow, the drug war took over the work of discrimination."
Contemporary African Americans are three times as likely to be arrested and 10 times as likely to receive a prison sentence as white Americans. The data is stark and shocking—but how does it compare with the UK? It was this intriguing question that Alex Stevens of Kent University set out to answer in his presentation as he followed Small onto the stage. She was quite an act to follow, but Stevens managed it, mainly by letting the data do the talking.
Those on the liberal left of British politics tend to adopt a self-congratulatory tone in respect to the shameful inequalities of US drug laws and policies. The hard lesson the audience learned was the UK does not, by contrast, stand out as a shining beacon of racial equality. Instead, we heard for drug offences, black Britons are around eight times more likely to be arrested and 10 times more likely to be sent to prison than their white fellow citizens. Arguing against the possible explanation the differentials simply reflect greater drug use by black people, Stevens examined further academic research showing whites and blacks use drugs in about the same percentages and, in the case of Class A drugs, a rather greater percentage of whites use them.
In his discussion, Stevens pointed to a number of factors which might explain the disparities. One was the greater availability of black people in the street, as they are almost five times more likely to be homeless, and nearly three times more likely to be unemployed or excluded from school.
He also stressed the need to take into account broader questions of power and inequality in understanding the data, and it was in this analysis that he began to tread the same sort of terrain as Small. The police tend to target areas of socio-economic deprivation, and these are the areas into which black Britons have been herded by poverty and marginalisation.
The poor and black are crucially lacking in what sociologists call "cultural capital"—they don't have the right accents, they lack powerful connections, lawyers, the credit cards that bespeak respectability, and so on—and this makes them easy targets. By contrast, Stevens invited us to recall the recent affair of Eva Rausing, wife of the Swedish billionaire's son, who was caught smuggling heroin and cocaine into the US embassy. Her husband Hans was subsequently arrested too, when allegedly a large stash of Class A drugs was found at his Chelsea home. Both were given conditional cautions.
Such high profile cases stand in sharp relief against a background in which black Britons are routinely directed into our burgeoning prison system. They should remind us of the massive inequalities in power and wealth which structure our society and underlie the disparities in the criminal justice system, not only across the Atlantic but here, in the daily grind of Britain's own perhaps less brash but equally injurious war on drugs.