Faking Left and Shifting Right: The Obama Administration’s War on Drugs

Isha Madan | staff writer

Since the end of the Civil Rights era, and most especially after the Reagan Administration, black Americans have been disproportionately incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related offenses, in a brutal and demeaning process that scholars such as Michelle Alexander have deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Black Americans are six times more likely to be sent to jail for the same crime as white people. This phenomenon can be observed in the set of policies known as the War on Drugs.

Many people with democratic sympathies hoped that the Obama administration, with its promises of change, would consider the plight of the unjustly imprisoned. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. In 2013, the Administration had the choice to pardon 5,000 prisoners, most of them black, who had been jailed under laws now considered outdated and unconstitutional. These laws punished the possession of crack cocaine much more severely than the possession powdered cocaine, simply because the former was more common in black neighborhoods. The Obama Administration chose not to pardon the prisoners jailed specifically because of the outdated laws on crack cocaine, and in fact sought to overturn the U.S. versus Blewett ruling that declared their imprisonment illegal. Subsequently, the War on Drugs continues, but now underneath a left wing masquerade.

President Obama’s support of the War on Drugs did not end at his refusal to pardon those five thousand prisoners. Although he has paid lip service to the anti-War on Drugs movement before, its principles have yet to be reflected in his actions. His epiphany on mass incarceration came a bit too late – Obama did not make any serious call to action against mass incarceration until 2014. He declared the release of 48 prisoners who had been arrested based on drug-related charges, charges which could not legally justify their decades long jail time. This release was largely celebrated, but the one hundred thousand that remained jailed were overlooked, despite their being imprisoned solely because of narcotics violations which did not provide grounds for continued imprisonment. Even as he ignores or actively opposes nearly every chance to release unjustly imprisoned black Americans, President Obama’s commentary continues to imply that the high incarceration rate is the fault of their communities, and not a product of unjust laws. He commented that “legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior,” in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. He then continued, unperturbed: “The chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”

Indeed, drug addiction and poverty have long been related to criminality, but this association is strongest in the case of African Americans. Since drug addiction has affected suburban white families, there is an upsurge in sympathy for drug addicts. According to The New York Times, nearly 90 percent of heroin users in the past decade have been white, and so drug addiction has become increasingly medicalized. It isn’t that white drug addicts don’t deserve sympathy, or even that they always receive help. It’s more that they receive exponentially more empathy combating their addiction than black addicts ever have, even when the former often come from middle to upper class suburban households, and the latter group of addicts more commonly grow up in poverty and turn to drugs after experiencing trauma. This contrast has been most starkly visible in the response to the heroin upsurge in middle and upper class white neighborhoods, which has led to many Americans categorizing drug addiction as a medical illness, while the influx of crack cocaine in inner-city black neighborhoods led to an enormous wave of incarceration. The Obama Administration contributes to the criminalization of black Americans when it refuses to take action on behalf of those who are recognized, by U.S. law, as unjustly imprisoned, and when President Obama gives simplistic, myopic commentary encouraging stereotypes and caricatures.

What is the purpose behind mass incarceration? It’s not necessarily only to get free prison labor – that may be one aspect, as all able-bodied prisoners are expected to work, but it is not necessarily a primary incentive. Mass incarceration may also provide a moral justification for the current economic structure of the U.S. Black Americans can more easily be blamed for the violence and systemic disadvantages they face if the majority of non-black Americans, particularly those who are middle or upper class, view them as inherently prone to criminality.Regardless of the reason, the War on Drugs remains a vehicle of mass incarceration perpetuated by both major political parties, however much the Democrats may deny it. The Obama Administration’s argument against the U.S. v. Blewett ruling is merely one example of the Democratic Party’s endorsement of anti- blackness: Bill Clinton incarcerated more African Americans than any other president in history with the Violent Crime Control bill and Law Enforcement Act and Hillary Clinton actively lobbied for this bill as well. The bill applied the death penalty to over 60 different offenses, allowed children as young as 13 to be arrested, funded prisons, cut programs that allowed prisoners to eventually attain college educations and enforced stricter laws against drug violations, thus establishing the base for mass incarceration as it exists today. It is apparent, in bills such as this and in the Obama Administration’s many follies, that the Democratic Party has a legacy of anti-blackness that the debatable concept of ‘lesser evilism’ cannot cancel out.

 

Isha is a sophomore Legal Studies major with a minor in History. She likes music, politics and food.

 

Check out more from December 2015 issue here.