Drug War Still Racist, Even in 'Liberal' Austin

Although rates of drug usage are about equal between white and black Americans, black folks are ten times more likely to go to prison for it.

In ‘liberal’ Austin, Texas, black folks are imprisoned for drug crimes at a rate of 300 per 100,000, compared to 10 per 100,000 for whites, resulting in a risk of imprisonment that is 30 times greater.

These are some of the findings that the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reports in “The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties” (12/4/07). Scott Henson has extracted the Texas numbers at Grits for Breakfast.

Here is our choice for top paragraph from the report:

This report is the first to examine the relationships between these sociodemographic structures and the specific annual rate at which people are admitted to prison for drug offenses. Results of our analysis indicate that the drug imprisonment rate is related to the strength of local labor markets and the ways that our
communities are racially and economically stratified. On average, counties with higher unemployment rates, higher poverty rates, and larger percentages of African American citizens tend to have higher rates of admission to prison for drug offenses (emphasis added).

In truth, the drug war, like other American wars, is a race war and a class war. In the European Union, with a population approaching 500 million people, they have a total of 56,000 people locked up for drug offenses. Here in the USA, with a population closer to 300 million, authorities have imprisoned a total of 509,000 for drugs. Americans are having themselves locked up for drugs at a rate 15 times higher than Europeans.

Why do Americans put up with these rates of imprisonment? Because the rates have been adjusted to cater to white privilege. Nationally in 2002 America locked up black drug offenders at a rate of 258 per 100,000, which is ten times more than the rate of 27 per 100,000 for whites.

“The white majority can ‘afford’ the costs associated with mass incarceration because the
incarcerated mass is disproportionately nonwhite, ” says David Cole of Georgetown University Law School.

Says the JPI report: “If drug laws were enforced among whites as they are among African Americans, those who are currently privileged by the status quo would no longer be able to “afford” punitive drug laws and drug enforcement practices. If these laws and practices were to become “unaffordable” to privileged subpopulations through equitable hyper-enforcement, they would quickly become a thing of the past.”

Sadly, this is the logic of America’s racist profile across the globe. If white Americans were aware of half the pain caused by the policies they deploy against the darker-skinned populations at home and abroad, wouldn’t there be a better chance at world peace?

Finally, international comparisons suggest that white Americans support their own incarceration for drugs at rates about 2.5 times higher than Europeans. Is there any evidence more plain than this to prove that supremacist logics actually lower self-respect?

Note: all numbers rounded for readability. Get the decimal points at JPI–gm

Here’s Debbie Russell’s take:

A new Justice Policy Institute report reveals: Travis County ranks 2nd in Texas and 24th in the nation for the disparity in blacks to whites incarcerated for drug convictions.

“…Travis County sent 31 times as many black folks as white folks to prison for drugs, by comparison Dallas, with a much larger black population, the ratio was 9-1. In Harris and Bexar Counties, both, the ratio was 19-1.” (Henson, Grits: see the chart for highest Texas counties).

TX counties ranked by black population for 2000, but Travis’s black population has been declining since then, while Harris County increased by 50,000+ in 2005 alone. So Harris and Dallas counties have over 2x the general black populations than Travis, but Travis incarcerates blacks 2-3x more than those counties (for drug offenses)!

So does this mean that TRAVIS COUNTY is the 2nd MOST RACIST COUNTY in TEXAS? (against African-Americans).

Having just returned from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans, I have concluded that drug-related incarceration rates for African-Americans is perhaps the most precise contemporary measuring tool of racism (especially in the south: Hispanics seem to be profiled “equally” across the nation)…massive incarceration of this population is in direct relation to lessening economic opportunities (can’t afford college, can’t get a job, so jail or the army’s front lines for many), the breakup of families, the loss of voting rights with felony records…it’s simply the new Jim Crow.

This is a CRITICAL issue that must receive REAL attention, not just lip service.

Debbie Russell
ACLU-TX, Central Texas Chapter president
member, City of Austin Public Safety Task Force

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