The Corner

No, the War on Drugs Is Not ‘Forcing Black Men Out of Society’

The New York Times had a long editorial-screed over the weekend titled “Forcing Black Men Out of Society.” 

It’s a predictable lament: The racist war on drugs has unfairly imprisoned large numbers of black men, and this has made it harder for them to get jobs when they get out, and it has made it impossible for black women to marry and so they instead have children out of wedlock. What’s more, the fact that so many blacks go to prison reinforces racist stereotypes, so that African Americans can’t get jobs even when they don’t have a criminal record, and even face racism when they are still children by the way they are disciplined in schools. “Deindustrialization” helped pave the way for all this, presumably because it was the difficulty of finding honest work that led so many African Americans to choose a life of crime. The Times concludes by suggesting — as I said, it’s all very predictable — that racism is also to blame for “the many grievous cases of unarmed black men and boys who were shot dead by the police — now routinely captured on video.” 

The solution? Well, the Times doesn’t say, but since it all stems from the war on drugs (“nonviolent drug offenses”), then I guess if drugs were legalized then racism would end, employment would skyrocket, and out-of-wedlock birthrates would plummet.

This is all nonsense, a combination of bad facts and bad logic.

Reasonable people can differ about whether the war on drugs has been a good idea and what can be done to improve law-enforcement policies in this area, but to suggest that it was racist in conception and has been systematically waged in a racially discriminatory way is simply false. If the government had announced that it had no problem with people selling heroin and crack in the ghetto, would that have been welcomed by African Americans? Have the police turned a blind eye to the trafficking in “white drugs,” like methamphetamine and prescription opioids?

If a disproportionate number of those arrested for drug crimes are black, it is because a disproportionate number of drug criminals are black. It is not true that all groups use illegal drugs at the same rate, and in any event it is not for using drugs but for selling them that people are typically sent to prison.

And the charges of racial bias these days are generally limited to drug-law enforcement, since even extremists acknowledge that “black men do have much higher rates of violent crime [than whites].” And the overwhelming majority of those in prison are not there for drug crimes.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is widespread discrimination in drug-law enforcement. What should be done about it? Here’s the suggestion I gave last year, and it can be implemented immediately and at no cost:

Step 1: Do not use, buy, or sell illegal drugs.

Step 2: If you belong to a racial or ethnic group that you think is targeted by the police, then especially do not use, buy, or sell illegal drugs.

The Times is also wrong to argue that the reason black children are disciplined at higher rates than other children is because of racism, and its suggestion that unarmed black men and boys are “routinely” shot by the police is libelous.

But, most fundamentally, it is absurd to suggest that high black incarceration rates have led to high black out-of-wedlock birthrates. This is a classic instance of confusing cause and effect. Youths, especially boys, are much more likely to get into trouble if they grow up in a home without a father — and this is true regardless of skin color. Conversely, locking up a male does not cause a female to become pregnant. 

The Times is right that, to the extent racial stereotypes linger, they are now driven by the perception that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes and have other social and cultural failings. But the paper exaggerates the extent and results of that stereotyping and ignores the single most important way to combat them: For African Americans to stop having 71.5 percent of their children out of wedlock. That, and not the legalization of drugs, is what would cause economic well-being among African Americans to skyrocket and their incarceration and discipline rates to plummet.

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