Compensation

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Gordon.jpg

IV. Morality


One rather unfortunate argument made to me, over the past few weeks, grudgingly acknowledges Ron Paul's willingness to cover up his profligate race-baiting, as well as the foolishness of his claim that rich planters should have been financially compensated for trafficking children. The argument then pivots to note that such issues are ancient history and of little importance when weighed against the great present evil of our time--the drug war. 

I confess that I too get that old feeling in my leg when I hear Paul denounce both wars abroad and at home. Moreover, Paul does so with a kind of forthrightness and directness that you don't really see among national politicians. The appeal is strong, invigorating, and should be acknowledged. I am not sure whether it is the shame of our politics, or the shame of our electorate, that such topics seem so off-limits and so off-stage.But the selective abandonment of uncomfortable history is neither a viable option for my tribe, nor is it particularly wise for the greater tribe which\believes our criminal justice system to be a great failure. 

It is often said that Americans aren't interested in history, but I think it's more accurate to say that people--in general--aren't interested in history that makes them feel bad. We surely are interested in those points of history from which we are able to extract an easy national glory--our achievement of independence from the British, the battle of Gettysburg, our fight against Hitler, and even the campaign of nonviolence waged by Martin Luther King. For different reasons, each of these episodes can be fitted for digestibility. More importantly that can be easily deployed in service our various national uses. Thus it is not so much that we are against history, as we are in favor of a selective history. The fact is that Martin Luther King is useful to us, in a way that Bayard Rustin is not (yet.)

Likewise, Ron Paul, and his followers are not against deploying history, so much as they are for deploying history in ways which advantages their candidate. When Paul invokes his own history of service to attack our wars abroad, no one says "That's all ancient history." The connection is obvious and advantageous. Paul's own service gives his claims a kind of moral weight, that Newt Gingrich's lack. Moreover, it buttresses Paul's credibility in an effort to sway those who remain undecided. Of course a necessary truth, follows this line of reasoning: As sure as Paul's service in the military lends respectability to the critique of our international wars, his service in the aims of white supremacy detract respectability from the critique of our national wars.

Indeed, one of the quicker ways to delegitimize the critique of the War on Drugs, in the eyes of black people, would be making Ron Paul the prominent face of the movement. That black people even need to be swayed doesn't seem to occur to Paul's supporters who, admittedly, are unoriginal in viewing African-Americans as the slick paint-job on a pre-fab argument. But the fact is that black people are far from united in their feelings about the criminal justice system in general, and drug crimes in particular.
A look at California, and the effort to legalize marijuana, is instructive. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in the 25 counties of that state, blacks are arrested at "double, triple or even quadruple the rate of whites" for marijuana possession. Blacks make up less than 10 percent of L.A. county's population, but they account for 30 percent of its marijuana arrests.It is unlikely that this arrest rate reflects usage, as government data has consistently found that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks. 

The effects are considerable:

They go before a judge who tells them they have been charged with a misdemeanor, and that if they plead guilty they will be fined up to $100. The judges routinely recommend defendants waive their right to a trial. Most people, wanting to get released and put this experience behind them, accept this recommendation and plead guilty. Most people find the money to pay the fine and court costs and give it little thought until they apply for a job, apartment, student loan or school, and are turned down because a criminal background check reveals that they have been convicted of a "drug crime." 

Twenty years ago, misdemeanor arrest and conviction records were papers kept in court storerooms and warehouses, often impossible to locate. Ten years ago they were computerized. Now they are instantly searchable on the Internet for $20 to $40 through commercial criminal-record database services. Employers, landlords, credit agencies, licensing boards for nurses and beauticians, schools, and banks now routinely search these databases for background checks on applicants. The stigma of criminal records can create barriers to employment and education for anyone, including whites and middle class people. Criminal drug arrest and conviction records can severely limit the life chances of the poor, the young, and especially young African Americans and Latinos.

And yet, with this backdrop, efforts to decriminalize marijuana have only limited support in the black community. Last year, when activists in California attempted to legalize marijuana through Proposition 19, only 47 percent of the black community supported the measure. I find that unsurprising. Unfortunately, black people have disproportionate contact with crime and criminals. That contact often doesn't breed sympathy, but severity. And as Adam Serwer once noted, it isn't just true of marijuana:

The fact was that crack panic had gripped many black leaders as firmly as everyone else, and the belief that it was some kind of nigh-supernatural demon drug lead the Congressional Black Caucus to support the bill, unaware of the real nature of crack or the harm the law would ultimately do. It was precisely because crack seemed to be so prevalent in black communities that black legislators supported the tougher penalties.

Those of us who are invested in the effort to roll back the drug war, take the support of the black community for granted at our peril. These are my people. And I have always known them to reflect many of the characteristics of any other group of Americans who are disproportionately less wealthy, less educated, more religious, and more Southern. Black America, like the rest of America, will have to be convinced. I would submit that, in that fight, invoking the dude who attacks Lincoln with the Confederate flag as a backdrop, who inveighs against the Civil Rights act, and once ran a white supremacist racket may be something less than a trump card.

I would also submit that it is worth exploring the uncomfortable origins of the greater fight. Our criminal justice system is a moral, and practical, catastrophe. Once again:

The United States has 756 people in jail per 100,000 people. No other country has more than 700, and only two are over 600 Russia (629) and Rwanda (604). Of the 2.3 million people in American jails, 806,000 are black males. African-Americans--males and females--make up .6 percent of the entire world's population, but African-American males--alone--make up 8 percent of the entire world's prison population. I know there are people who think some kind of demon culture could create a world where a group that makes up roughly one in 200 citizens of the world, comprises one in 12 of its prisoners. But I kind of doubt it.

Some thought should be given to how we came to tolerate such large numbers of African-American removed from society and remanded to the soothing hands of the state. I don't think it's too much to say that were the rest of country imprisoned at the same rate as black men, our criminal justice policy would look different. 

So what are the origins of that discrepant attitude? Are they wholly unconnected with a general animus visited upon blacks, in this country, since the mid-17th century? Are they unconnected to the willingness to protect an older system of torture and coercive violence which blots the origin myth of our country? Does that feeling share any relation to the sense that the violent end of that system was, somehow, a greater tragedy than the system itself?


And what does it mean for a man, in this day and age, to go before his country and claim that a group, even today viewed through the lenses of stock price...

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. 

...should have always been viewed as such? Nothing says privilege like watching a presidential candidate argue that slaveholders should be compensated, in a world where compensation for slaves, and the descendants of slaves, has never enjoyed a scintilla of respectability.

In the present business, there are those of us who are not so recent to inveighing against the evils of mass incarceration. We spent the 90s watching the prisons bulge with our brothers. Where was Ron Paul? Did he then voice his concerns about the impact of a "racist drug war" in his  periodicals? Or was he off cashing in on that old American hatred that give that has always given our drug wars their animating force? 

It would be so much easier if the racism in Ron Paul's newsletters. his flirtation with the Confederacy, his opposition to civil rights legislation, his denunciations of Lincoln had no  connection to our incarcerated present. But our histories don't exist to make our world easier. We are forced to grapple with them. Morality compels us. 


More: You can view the other portions of this series here, here, here and here. I'm pretty sure this is the last one.


More #2: A commenter below makes a good point and answers the question of "Where was Ron Paul?" in the 90s. Inveighing against the drug war, it seems. Thanks for the correction. People are complicated. It's a rule worth remembering. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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