My husband is a Black man. He is one of the hardest working Americans I know, but he is wearing the face of crime in America. That means that if he is in an elevator with a white woman, she is apt to clutch her purse a little tighter. If he’s traveling down a dark deserted street, she might cross over to the other side. When he goes into a store, the security guard is likely to follow him, anticipating theft.
If you look at the prison system, it is filled with a whole lot of people who look like him. Indeed, it appears that these Black rascals are the culprits terrorizing honest, law-abiding Americans. These are the deadbeats who are sucking up all the drugs and thwarting the Drug War causing murder and mayhem in an otherwise civilized society. That is what many people think.
Although it may be of little comfort to know this, the Bernie Madoffs and Wall Street derivative junkies of the world are more likely to do you harm than my dapper husband walking to his car parked on St. Paul Street. At least we can be pretty sure that this Black man is not about to foreclose on your home due to predatory and tricky lending practices. He is not about to ship your young men off to war to be killed based on the Pinocchio principle—lying through your teeth. This Black man is not trying to rip off struggling, recession-weary Americans to give stuff to the rich. He is not likely to go to a school and unload an AR15 assault weapon on our children. Nonetheless, we easily see the criminal as the dark man whose TV images have flashed before our eyes in the Zero Tolerance Drug War aimed at black and brown communities. But isn’t that smart policing since that’s where all the criminals are? Are they really?
After Nixon launched the Drug War, there was much public conversation about drugs as an anathema to society and the need to “get tough” on drug criminals. I always thought this was because drugs were proliferating in society. As it turns out, that was not the case.
Kenneth B. Nunn, Professor of Law and Assistant Director of the Criminal Justice Center, wrote:
In 1982, when the drug war began, the recreational use of illegal drugs was in decline…in 1982, surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed significant drops in drug usage over long periods for a wide range of age groups. This decline impacted the use of both legal and illegal substances.
The intersection of drugs and race is striking when looking at drug arrest rates in 1988 and even in 2010. At the height of the drug war in 1988, the ratio of arrests regarding African Americans and Whites is very telling. Arrests for Black people were 1,033 per 100,000 people; Whites only 273. Over the years, the chart shows a steep decline in African American arrests, however, the ratio is still skewed—in 2010: Blacks, 723; Whites 492.
“Stop and Frisk” is a Drug War police tactic used to apprehend criminals by stopping and searching random people who cops view as suspicious. A 2011 New York Police Department study reported that in that year alone, 700,000 unfortunates were swept into this New York dragnet. Nearly ninety percent of those stopped were African American or Hispanic. With Bloomberg as Mayor, from 2003 to 2011, “stop and frisks” increased by 600 percent.
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Liebermann stated:
While it appears at first blush to be a slick, fact-filled response, nothing in the report can dispute the reality that stop and frisk NYPD-style is targeted overwhelmingly at people of color, so innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, that all but 12 percent walk away without so much as a ticket.
Is this very controversial racial profiling policy really the way to catch criminals and make our streets safer? A twelve percent yield is not a winning outcome.
So why haven’t Rambo tactics in black and brown communities, with police slamming people up against the wall to be spread-eagled, searched, insulted and demeaned, brought about better results?
White anti-racist Tim Wise, author and public speaker on White supremacy, wrote in his book Dear White America that Whites were more likely to use drugs than Blacks. When I read that, my mind went into a brain freeze. How is that possible? That can’t be true. Pictures flashed through my mind: crack addicts selling their babies, women trading shocking, deviant sex acts for drugs, and violent junkies terrorizing neighborhoods. All those faces were black.
In 2000, Tim Wise wrote, "According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Whites are eleven percent more likely to have used drugs than Blacks and twenty-five percent more likely to have done so than Hispanics." He further reports that a National Drug Abuse Survey from the Centers for Disease Control found that Whites in high school were “seven times more likely than Blacks to have used cocaine or heroin, and six times more likely to have used methamphetamine.
In 2001, Wise revealed findings from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Health and Human Services, admitting the fact that contrary to popular belief, Whites were at least as likely, if not more likely, to use drugs than their black and brown stopped-and-frisked-like-a South-African kafir brethren.
Perhaps even more shocking came the statistic that it is more likely that a White male has carried a weapon in the last thirty days than…well, my husband.
As for drug dealers, according to the Justice Department, the culprits who are using and selling drugs are mostly White, middle-class males between the ages of 14 and 32. The image etched in my brain of crazy, scared White kids coming into black ghettoes to “score” exploded. Whites mostly buy from Whites and apparently keep it in their own middle-class suburbs or frat houses.
The obvious question at this point from all these government statistics is if a great deal of money has been spent to uncover these truths, why are the drug arrests and convictions so heavily skewed toward Black people. If the War on Drugs did not evolve out of a drug crisis, if the people targeted after a very racist media campaign are Black people and not Whites who are more likely to have drugs, if White people are toting guns (lest we not forget the gun-slinging NRA) more than Blacks, if they are guzzling drugs and selling them in the ‘burbs—and let’s not get into the wealthy who own the planes and banks that launder the money—if all that is true, then you mean to tell me that the face of crime in America is my Black husband. Really?
Using fear of “the other” as a chisel to carve out a hidden political agenda is boilerplate American strategy and nothing new. We can recognize this tactic today in the Republican racist dog whistles that serve to cement their political base. However, this Machiavellian strategy is as old as the scars of slavery itself.
It was in the beginning of the twentieth century that drugs became regulated. Before that, cocaine could be bought in a Sears Roebuck catalog for $1.50. Even though most of the addicted drug users were White women and war veterans whose doctors had prescribed the opiates, the face of drugs quickly became “the other.”
There was much racial animus toward the immigrant Chinese and their opium dens, which were seen as a corrupting influence on the morals of White women. The scare tactic was the myth that the Asians were seducing these women into debauchery. This culture war against the Chinese, accused of taking White people’s jobs, caused the city council of San Francisco to pass the first drug law. In 1875, they put a ban on smoking in the opium dens—meanwhile, the opiate laudunum, the drug of choice for many genteel White women (including Lincoln’s addicted wife) remained legal.
The illogical differentiation of drugs smacks of the modern cocaine/crack discriminatory sentencing guidelines. The minimum sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine were a hundred times harsher than sentencing for powder cocaine. Crack, the cheaper drug more available in poor communities, put a majority of Black people away. The media made it appear that it was mostly Black people addicted to the drug, not Whites. In 1994, 96.5% of sentences for crack abuse were applied to non-Whites. This is the tricky part, though. David B. Kopel & Michael Krause write in an article, “The Drug War Against Civil Liberty and Human Rights”:
Yet statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveal that most crack users are White. Of person reporting cocaine use (in anonymous surveys) in 1991, 75% were White; 15% Black and 10% Hispanic. In the same year, persons reporting crack use were 52%, White, 38% Black, and 10% Hispanic.
In 1914, when the federal government went on a campaign to regulate the production, sale, and distribution of opiates (an early twentieth century Drug War, so to speak) they knew that they did not have jurisdiction over criminal law. That was a matter for the states. However, they could tax, so they added a tax to the law. Further, in order to overcome objections by southern states-rights congressmen, they racialized the issue. Hence, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was born. A media campaign ensued to make the Black man the face of drug crime. Kopel and Krause report:
The Harrison Act was…incited by newspapers which printed wildly racist headlines to drive up sales and to create panic about the rape of White women by Black men, high on cocaine. For example, a New York Times article titled, ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace’ claimed ‘most of the attacks upon White women in the South are the direct result of the “cocaine crazed” Negro brain.
They also warned against the Chinese and Hispanics who were charged with all kinds of vile characteristics that could threaten White people. They even said that the drug would create super-human powers and assigned police more lethal weaponry so that they could better subdue the “bogeymen”—shades of our militarized SWAT police force that developed as a result of the scare tactics of Reagan’s Drug War.
If the face of crime in America is not the Black man, then what does it look like? How can we adjust our thinking about this pervasive lie?
At its inception, the United States began as a criminal enterprise: genocide of Native Americans for land, and the enslavement of African people for profit. These are some of the greatest atrocities in human history. The effects of that cynical barbarism remain with us today in big ways and small. For some, it may seem like a small thing that my husband has to bear the face of crime in America, that people cannot see him without contemplating his criminal status. You might say that he just needs to “get over it.” Even if he could, I can’t.
What I resent the most is that I was programmed to believe a lie that denigrates my very family. A lie that I live with daily. Many people believe that the past no longer matters and that I just need to bask in the embrace of the new White liberalism. I need to embrace my peach-white, miscegenated grandchildren and call it a day. Maybe they’re right. However, I like the saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In that regard, I take great care on how I put on my shoes in America, and tread ever so lightly on this bloody, appropriated soil.
Auset Marian Lewis has been writing and doing art most of her life. She was the first black female columnist for a Gannet newspaper in Wilmington Delaware, has won writing awards, has given political/social commentary on radio and t.v., has performed her poetry in venues from Yale University to homeless shelters in Baltimore, has been guest speaker at many events, and has given workshops on race relations and male/female relationships. Her written work reflects her political, social, and spiritual views. Adolph Hitler said, "What a great advantage for leaders that the people do not think." Auset tries to make them do just that. Her personal blog is "Words for Life."