Many times a woman would speak up for a man—a mother, sister, girlfriend, or wife would walk me through the man’s saga. She would detail how many job applications he had filled out, how many certificates he’d earned in job-training courses that went nowhere, how he couldn’t even get a fast-food restaurant to give him a chance. They detailed how the rejections were taking their toll. Some agonized about how it seemed like the system wanted them to do something wrong because it was providing no options for them to do something right.
Every day of that campaign, I had learned that my ward, which was upward of 90 percent blacks and Latinos, housed thousands of men desperate to go to work, to contribute to their families, to assert their dignity through a job—desperate for an opportunity even if it was minimum wage and manual labor. But these men were being limited by previous convictions, many of them minor.
What frustrated me was that I knew, from living in the relatively privileged communities I grew up in, that the drug war wasn’t waged in those places like it was in Newark. I was coming from college campuses and suburban towns where marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and other drugs were widespread and often used openly, with little fear of the police. Witnessing drug use wasn’t a rare occurrence in my life. Yet few Yale or Stanford students worried about being stopped and frisked on campus or having their homes or dorms raided by the police—in fact, I never knew of it to happen. Nor did I know of the Drug Enforcement Agency or local police raiding homes in Harrington Park or Old Tappan; there was drug use there, but the enforcement of the law was clearly different.
The war on drugs has turned out to be a war on people—and far too often a war on people of color and the poor. Marijuana use, for example, is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites; in some states they are six times more likely. In the states with the worst disparities, across all offenses blacks were 10, 15, or even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county.
Further, there is no difference between blacks and whites in dealing drugs. In fact, some studies show that whites are more likely than blacks to sell drugs, even though blacks are far more likely to be arrested for it. Today, about one in 10 Americans has been arrested on drug-related charges, but—despite blacks and Latinos committing drug offenses at a rate no different than whites—Latinos are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly twice the rate of whites for the same offenses, and blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites.
For poor Americans, an arrest alone is enough to block them from accessing the American dream—or at least a more secure American reality. The arrest reduces employment opportunities. For example, according to the National Employment Law Project, “[T]he likelihood of a callback for an interview for an entry level position drops off by 50 percent for those applicants with an arrest or a criminal history.” And the arrest effectively reduces a person’s earnings, which minimizes his or her ability to provide for a family.