The ACLU came out with a study on Monday showing the huge nationwide racial disparity in marijuana arrests. It was duly reported on in the media yesterday and will quickly be forgotten. I'm not going to rehash the contents of the study, so if you're unfamiliar with these disparities check out the report or Wonkblog's helpful summary. The key point to keep in mind is that there are not significant differences in marijuana use across racial groups.
The depressing predictability and regularity of these studies raise a few larger points.
1) We live in a society that is basically unfair in ways that completely contradict everything we claim to stand for. These are not problems as defined by radical liberals. These are basic moral and constitutional violations that ought to unite people across the political spectrum in outrage. Because black people bear the brunt of it, indifference is the more common reaction.
2) As Michelle Alexander has shown in The New Jim Crow, the Supreme Court has effectively institutionalized racial discrimination in law. Racial profiling is legal, and many police forces are racist in their practices (in the sense that they apply the law and their policing power in disparate ways based on race rather than solely on concrete factors like crime rates).
3) The purveyors of these racist practices are bipartisan, and not necessarily white. From reactionary bigots like Sherriff Joe Arpaio, to big city Democratic mayors like Rahm Emmanuel, racist policing is either actively encouraged, or silently accepted. The prime example is New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose paternalistic liberalism finds no fault with invading the privacy of citizens in systematically racist ways.
4) Yet our political culture does not allow these facts to be plainly stated. At the national level, both parties pretend that America is a place where everybody gets a fair shot. On the Republican side, any politician who dares to admit that minorities are discriminated against because of their race immediately dooms their chances for higher office. And really, it's not that much different for Democrats. Barack Obama has spent more time telling black Americans to turn off the TV and pull their pants up than he has acknowledging the systemic discrimination they face. There is grassroots activism in the Democratic Party on the left, but if you want to be a big-time national politician you don't make a big deal out of it. You might vaguely allude to ongoing problems, but you certainly don't call out America's racism or propose any specific means of dealing with it.
5) At the state level, the trend is clearly toward less punitive drug laws. This is positive in that as it reduces the overall severity of punishment those who have been the target will feel some relief. But it doesn't directly address the core problem of racial discrimination. Without proactive action, a less punitive drug war will reduce the absolute number arrests, but will do nothing about the underlying disparity. Unfortunately, there is little evidence the trend toward leniency is driven by an acknowledgment of racism. It rather seems to be fueled by the growing acceptance of marijuana among middle class whites.
6) I'm not sure history will look kindly on Barack Obama's cowardice on racism. I am sure he is aware of the issues involved. But he has done nothing to bring these matters to the nation's attention. I know what the political scientists tell us, that by mentioning the issue he immediately polarizes it. But we're talking about something the right-wing could hardly be more retrograde and polarized on already. What's the harm in mentioning it?