Monday, December 24, 2012

Race vs. class in the USA: the drug war

You can find people of all races in US prisons, but you'll have to look hard to find anyone who wasn't poor. From Prison Legal News: "Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest."

The part of the criminal system that most disproportionately targets poor people of color is the drug war. John McWhorter notes, "The primary reason for this massive number of black men in jail is the War on Drugs. Therefore, if the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all."

The racial mix of Americans who live under the poverty line is 50% white, 25% black, 22% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. If prison simply reflected poverty, the figures would be the same for all crimes. But Drug War Facts gives this picture for drug offenses: "Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were black, 50,100 (19.97%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white."

This might be because white poverty tends to be rural and black poverty tends to be urban, but I can't find the statistics to test that theory. Even when you adjust for class, the drug war seems racist.

There's another way to see whether poverty or race might be the major factor in a statistic. According to the US Census Bureau's Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005, the number of non-Hispanic blacks and whites in poverty looks like this:
White: 16,227,000
Black: 9,168,000
Since almost everyone executed in the US is poor, simply divide the number of blacks by the number of whites. In this case, you get .59, which is within tolerance for racial fairness.

But compare that with this, from Race, Prison and the Drug Laws: "Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were black, 50,100 (19.97%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white."

Selecting just for blacks and whites:
White: 64,800
Black: 133,100
Do the math, and you get 2.05. That disparity can't be explained by anything except a drug war that targets poor black folks.

Still, you can't ignore class in the drug war. Prison Sentencing Study: Whites, Women, Non-Poor, and U.S. Citizens Are Given Lighter Sentences quotes this from a 2001 study by David Mustard called “Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the US Federal Courts":
Having no high school diploma resulted in an additional sentence of 1.2 months. Income had a significant impact on the sentence length. Offenders with incomes of less than $5,000 were sentenced most harshly. This group received sentences 6.2 months longer than people who had incomes between $25,000 and $35,000.
I also found this claim, which, alas, isn't footnoted, so it may sound right and still be wrong:
Among those entering prison in 1991, about 70 percent earned less than $15,000 a year when they were arrested, and 45 percent didn’t have a full-time job. One in four prisoners is mentally ill, and 64 percent never graduated from high school.
In 2009, White House drug czar, Gill Kerlikowske called for an "end to the war on drugs" and said the drug problem in this country should be a public heath issue and not a criminal justice issue. Maybe Obama will get to it when he's done with health care.


  1. You look at class but not at culture, assuming that drug ussage is the same in all demographics. If you look at death by overdose numbers, AIDS infection rates, and other objective indicators of drug use, you'll find the incarceration rates closely track drug ussage demographics. This would indicate the racism involved is less in the criminal justice system than in the conditions causing drug usage.

  2. Joel, very true.

    It may also have to do with the kind of drug that a culture uses. Crack cocaine, for example, has much harsher penalties, and its demographic is heavily black. I don't know if that explains all of the discrepancy.

    But if it does, singling out the drug that a race prefers would fall under "racist" in my book.

  3. Tens of thousands of bodies? Do you have a citation handy?

  4. Not handy, but I was talking about the eighties and nineties... we averaged 25,000-27,000 murders per year throughout those entire two decades, with a very large percentage being drug/gang related. While your local milage may vary, most places the powder dealers were dealing to bigwigs and local celebrities, and maintained a pretty quiet profile; the firefights were always the crack dealers/gangs. In recent years, though- at least around here- the meth deals have been the ones hitting the news.

  5. Ok, first hit on a Google search:
    about gang homicides- this report says they decreased from 1,748/year to 1,492/year during the nineties. That averages to 1,620/year- times 20 years for the eighties and nineties is 32,400 gang homicides.