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Crimes and Punishments

FEW COULD DISAGREE with the central premise of Michael Tonry’s book: the War on Drugs has failed. The price of crack cocaine has fallen steadily since 1982. The threat of long sentences has not been a deterrent for would-be criminals. During three months in the 1990s, officers arrested ninety-four drug dealers at one corner in Milwaukee. The arrests did not make a dent in the drug trade at that location or anywhere else in Milwaukee—and the story is typical of decades of futility. The War on Drugs is also black America’s central problem. Almost half of the federal and state prison population is black, and in 2003 over a third of blacks new to prison were convicted on drug charges. Homicides, assaults, and robberies are typically tied to drugs as well.

Meanwhile, the officers assigned to trawl ghettos for drugs leave residents thinking of those officers—and by extension, of white people more generally—as menacing aliens. Selling drugs—always possible with the mark-up that the illegality of drugs makes possible—stands as a tempting alternative to legal work. The prison time that ensues creates diploma-less, unskilled drug addicts who commonly wind up back in the pen or six feet under. As Tonry notes, “If policy makers’ aim in setting drug and crime control policies had been to reduce poor black men’s chances of earning a decent living, or becoming a good husband and father, or being socialized into positive social values, it is hard to see how they could have done it more effectively.”

Tonry believes that the reasons for the drug war include the “paranoid style” that Richard Hofstadter described, Protestant fundamentalist dogma, and the fact that judges and prosecutors are elected, and thus often run on appeals to lowlier sentiments about “public order.” This is fine as far as it goes, but Tonry’s thesis is unfortunately couched in the type of argumentation favored by the White Studies crowd, and cast in a J’accuse vein according to which the War on Drugs is in large measure the product of an unwitting, unfelt, and yet somehow awesomely pernicious racism.

The drive to parse the War on Drugs as “the new racism” is its own manifestation of paranoid style. It reduces a complex amalgam of good intentions, unintended consequences, and mission creep—in sum, history—to a Manichaean opposition between clueless, overfed white oppressors and powerless black subalterns. It is an easy score, appealing to the part of us that played cops and robbers as children, and gets off on conspiracy theories as adults.

Tonry is bothered that the police focus on open-air drug dealing in black ghettoes rather than white kids dealing at parties and in dorms. You know what that’s about, right? But this is lazy history. The Congressional Black Caucus was vociferously behind the 1986 “100-to-1” law penalizing the possession of crack more severely than powdered cocaine. Fully aware that this would disproportionately affect black communities, they nonetheless sought to blunt the murderous violence that open-air drug selling entails. There is a non-racist motivation for policing these corners rather than paneled basements in Scarsdale, where people buy and use hard drugs without gunnery as an accompaniment.

But Tonry continues with the usual drill. He cites Glenn Loury’s observation that “mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society.” But Loury is not claiming that a person, body, or process is explicitly dedicated to this reproduction. Quite different is Lawrence Bobo’s and Devon Johnson’s claim, quoted approvingly by Tonry, that “one major function of the criminal justice system is the regulation and control of marginalized social groups such as African Americans.” The emphasis is mine: Bobo and Johnson are claiming something more deliberate is at work—a function, or a purpose. But the whole idea is too tortuously abstract.

To be sure, Tonry is careful about the R word: “I have purposely not used the word racism to this point.” But this is genuflection. Next comes, “But it is difficult not to wonder,” and it is clear that Tonry does indeed wonder. Right after citing Bobo and Johnson, he is on to lynching and red-lining. What animates him is a battle against, indeed, “racism.” An earlier book of Tonry’s was titled Malign Neglect, a locution neatly encapsulating his view here: people may not care about black people’s welfare, but those people are malign towards them at the same time.

Tonry repeatedly implies a direct line from the Republicans’ Southern Strategy of the 1960s to today’s black incarceration rate, but reciting ugly things in order is not historical analysis:

Until the Civil War, slavery assured white domination. After the war, social practices and conventions and legal forms of discrimination known as Jim Crow laws kept blacks in their “place.” After the large-scale migration of millions from south to north to escape Jim Crow in the early twentieth century, the big-city ghettos and employment and housing discrimination kept blacks subordinate. And when deindustrialization and the flight of jobs to the suburbs left disadvantaged blacks marooned in urban ghettos, the modern wars on drugs and crime took over.

This is the type of paragraph that gets law students applauding—but would those same students (or Tonry) accept this post hoc brand of reasoning from Glenn Beck?

Tonry is no more convincing when he turns to the relationship between jobs and drugs. “To people with no viable work prospects, or prospects paying only the minimum wage, drug dealing appears to promise material rewards available nowhere else,” he writes. This is a grievously unexamined truism. Tonry writes as if there were no such thing as getting a GED (a diploma equivalent) or attending a community college, and as if all heating appliance repairmen, cable installers, sound technicians, mechanics, building inspectors, and mail carriers must have college degrees.

The problem for uneducated ghetto black men is an inadequate awareness of opportunity. This has been argued, with no refutation by people taking Tonry’s line, by real scholars at places such as the Urban Institute. “For many young disadvantaged men, slightly older men with prison records provide the local role models and youth gangs provide peer acceptance,” Tonry notes. But that alone can indeed explain so very much: people do what they see their nearest and dearest doing, in the way that we learn the language we grow up with. It is unclear what advantage we gain by propping up a patently false claim that selling drugs is the only way a ghetto male can keep the wolf from the door.

Yet there are perhaps grounds for allowing this slippery engagement with history and fact, in the name of something larger. Tie the War on Drugs to “racism” after tossing around some buzz words and sexy references, and you elicit the same visceral repulsion in an audience that Archie Bunker did. The civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, in her more readable book The New Jim Crow, seems to understand this. She gracefully explains why the Jim Crow analogy is flawed, but only after two hundred pages of text. The title, however, has helped make the book probably the hottest non-fiction race book of 2010. The idea that there is a “new Jim Crow,” when we thought the old days were past, is seriously arousing to much of the reading audience, who are as stimulated by notions of apocalyptic sociological backlash as they are by thrillers like Deep Impact and The War of the Worlds.

Could it be that appealing to our less reflective natures will be what stimulates America to end this travesty and bring on a day when a generation of blacks come of age with no sense of the police—and therefore of whites, and therefore of America—as their enemy? If so, then let’s pretend the War on Drugs is “Jim Crow.” We will not come close to healing racial tensions in America until the thoughtless absurdity of the drug war ends.

John McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor at The New Republic.