The Corner

Blacks & Drugs Cont’d

From a liberal reader:

Dear Jonah,

You say: “Meanwhile, the drug war — despite the many authentic tragedies it produces — doesn’t set out to punish blacks because they are black. It sets out to punish people who sell (and to a lesser extent buy) drugs and use violence to protect their trade. That blacks are disproportionately in this line of work is certainly lamentable. But no sane person who supports the drug war would be anything but delighted if African-Americans abandoned both drug taking and drug selling en masse.”

Lots of assumptions and missing information here. Do you think it’s relevant, for example, that penalties for powder cocaine exceed penalties for crack cocaine by 1-100, and that blacks are more likely to use crack cocaine because its cheaper and blacks are, on average, poorer than whites?

What evidence do you have for the idea that blacks are “disproportionately in this line of work”? I haven’t seen any studies on the racial makeup on the drug dealing profession, and I highly doubt any could be found. And would you say more dollars of cocaine are consumed in Brooklyn projects or in Wall Street and Park Avenue bathrooms? Look at these statistics on drug use, for instance: http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/19CGSENTENCE1.pdf.

The explanation for the fact that whites and blacks do roughly the same amount of drugs but blacks are arrested for it more, I think, is that drug crime is policed more in poor black communities than rich white communities. I’m not saying that’s racist, necessarily. But I think you may want to backpedal from this notion that doing and selling drugs is a disproportionately black thing.

Me: Fair enough on the last point. I don’t know any such thing one way or the other. I was merely going by the inherent assumptions behind some legalization arguments. But, I don’t think that concession — which I am happy to make — changes my overall argument much. Poor people are disproportionately affected by all sorts of things all of the time and blacks are disproportionately poor. In most other spheres, libertarians don’t take that fact and bend their principles to it.

As for the crack vs. powder argument, it’s an old one. I followed it more closely in the 1990s when Randall Kennedy, among others, was pointing out that crack was more closely associated with violence and therefore deserved to be treated more seriously. He also credited the idea, I don’t know if he still does, that because black communities were more devastated than white ones by the crack epidemic, one could at least argue that tougher enforcement and penalties against crack were actually an attempt to help, not hurt, the black community. I’m still sympathetic to the logic of that argument. Even so, I have no problem with raising the penalties for powdered cocaine or lowering the penalties for crack — or both — to make them equal. But I also have no problem with very, very harsh penalties for violent crimes by drug dealers (or anyone else), even if there are disproportionate consequences. As for the specific stats quoted above, I take all drug statistics with a grain of salt until I investigate them myself. There have always been a lot of very bad numbers out there.

Update: One last point on the disproportionate thing. Let’s take drugs out of it. I’m in favor of the death penalty. Let’s assume blacks and white commit murder at identical rates but because blacks are poorer they get convicted and executed more than whites. I don’t think that fact alone means we should get rid of the death penalty. It means we should do a better job of executing white murderers. A justly convicted murderer should be punished regardless of his race. A justly convicted drug dealer should be punished, regardless of his race as well. If we’re punishing a disproportionately high number of blacks, that’s a sign we should crack down on more guilty whites, not give up on punishing crimes.

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