Young and black and dealing crack
A key component to the plague of crack cocaine is a complicated one. Black teens and young adults, by far mostly male, are on a conveyor belt to incarceration. Because they are black and because they sell crack. One observation is, well, if they weren’t breaking the law they wouldn’t go to jail, pure and simple. There’s no denying that, yes, if they didn’t engage in criminal activity, cops wouldn’t arrest them and cops wouldn’t lock them up. It is not, however, pure and simple.
Inarguably, crack and other drugs cripple communities. Take methamphetamine, like crack, generally associated with the low income social strata, except white instead of black. It’s well known for ravaging rural Minnesota. Heroin, color-blind, claims lives and wreaks wholesale collateral damage, indiscriminately. Compared to the hard stuff, marijuana is pablum and does less harm than drinking too much. Crack and other chronically addictive chemicals undermine society, itself. If that sounds melodramatic, consider how ruthlessly it impacts poor people — who, quiet as it’s kept — are part of our whole picture. A part apart, separated as by a barbed wire fence by finances, who nonetheless matter. Addiction kicks the leg from under such impoverished who, shackled by monkeys riding their backs, otherwise would lead real lives. Not a few potentially enriching the highest strata. Historic figure James Baldwin, after all, was born piss-poor in Harlem. Frederick Douglass was born worse off and impacted America. Point is, America didn’t become America without those born with clay spoons in their mouths.
Crack kills off futures.
A question seriously at hand is not whether young blacks perpetrate this communal cancer and, consequently, are imprisoned. It’s whether that’s all there is to answering the problem.
For one, law enforcement in Minnesota, as in the rest of America, is well known—long prior to George Zimmerman skating in the murder of Trayvon Martin—for its lopsided execution, protecting well-to-do whites while serving impoverished blacks up on a platter to a system that puts them away, as of 2008, at a rate of 6 times the rate of whites, nearly 1 million—just under half—of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, nationwide, African-Americans make up 58% of youth thrown into state prisons. Additionally, along with being jailed more routinely, blacks mixed up in drug trafficking catch stiffer sentences. The attitude behind disparities are so obviously race-biased that former Hennepin County district judge Pamela Alexander caught career-stunting hell for using her authority to try and do something about it. In 1990, someone charged with possessing 3 or more grams of crack faced up to 20 years in prison. For a similar amount of powder cocaine, five years. Stats showed that 96.6% of the people charged with crack possession were black and 79.6% charged with possession of coke were white. An attorney in a case before her argued his black clients weren’t receiving equal protection under the law. She agreed and threw the case out. The Minnesota Supreme Court, 6 to 1, upheld her decision. The result wasn’t sentences were lowered, coke sentences were lengthened. Tellingly, the backlash against her was blatant. When Senator Paul Wellstone nominated Pamela Alexander in 1994 as U.S. district court judge, President Bill Clinton and Janet Reno backed down from Newt Gingrich and company because they didn’t want to be seen as advancing a judge perceived as soft on crime. Alexander’s nomination never made it as far the Senate floor and Minnesota law-enforcement insiders swung the job for John Tunheim.
As Richard Pryor quipped, “You come down to do the jail looking for justice and that’s exactly what you’ll find. Just us.” The market for it is lucrative as companies that construct prisons are doing fantastic business. Corrections Corporation designs, builds, manages and operates prisons and jails for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Marshals Service, nearly half of all states and nearly a dozen counties across the country. In 2007 alone, the company made more than $1.4 billion. It has been turning quite a tidy profit since it started in 1983. It doesn’t take a calculator to comprehend enterprises like this partner with judicial systems in the hugely successful business of locking up a populace that, without black bodies to warehouse, would be doing only about half as well.
So, it is easy to view the situation of young blacks as simply being shoveled into the maw of a gigantic, money-making beast. Further, there is demonizing of black teens in general who don’t fit the Theo Huxtible mold and demonizing in specific of those who end up on the wrong end of the law. They tend to be perceived by John and Jane Q. Public as human beings second, if at all, and first as an immediately clear and present danger to the well being of anyone around them. Back in the early ’90s, films like “Boyz In The Hood” and “Menace II Society” projected an inner city visage of rabid, unruly youth so scary their shadows were frightened to follow them around. More than merely reflecting violent lawlessness, those movies reinforced it for legions of adolescent, attitudinal knuckleheads. Now, since the advent of an unsightly fashion statement of youth swaggering to and fro with their pants sagging to show off what color boxer shorts they’re wearing, a threatening aura of arbitrary belligerence clings more than ever to the image. Throw in a propensity by more than a few to strut around reciting foul-mouthed rap lyrics in praise of a violent lifestyle and you have reflex fear and loathing which doesn’t differentiate between honest-to-God vicious, young, usually gang affiliated, animals roaming around loose and naturally restless adolescents who merely made a piss-poor choice in role models. People are happy to see them hauled off in handcuffs, especially people who live in neighborhoods where young toughs intimidate the hell out of folk just trying to get along and mind their own business. These are not by any means pitifully defenseless victims of society.
However. They did not become menaces in a vacuum, materializing out of thin air to terrorize their own communities with wanton violence and make money by, instead of holding down a job, selling “work,” i.e., crack.
If you can find 1 in 10 who went far enough in school to read a job application, much less fill it out, you’re doing good. They grow up in homes where communications skills beyond ghettoese are unheard of and are as ill-equipped to handle a job interview as a cripple is to try out for the olympics. On top of which, Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder can see what today’s employment prospects are for even minimally challenging labor. Gone is the time when a kid could walk in the door of a McBurger Thing and walk out with a reasonably good chance of putting something in his or her pocket each week. That time has, in this depression we keep calling a recession, been gone longer than teenagers have been alive. When career criminals recruit them to be all they can be in terms of making quick, easy money, being financially better off than many grown men in their neighborhoods, the reasoning is they’d have to be suckers to turn it down. Considering the conditions under which and the environment to which they’re born, scores are on a virtually predetermined collision course with cops and the courts from day one. Unless we actually believe that as little, still-innocents kids wondering what to be when they grew up, they decided that instead of astronaut, president or CEO they picked predatory thug with minimal life expectancy and a future spent in and out of penitentiaries.
None of which does a thing for those they victimize—from chemically dependent customers to impressionable girls they impregnate and abandon as a matter of course and lifestyle. It certainly doesn’t help taxpayers who foot the bill for what it costs the State of Minnesota to lock up black kids for selling drugs.
What can help is intervention. The Fourth Judicial District Court and Hennepin County implemented Drug Court in 1997 and revised the program in 2007 to, high in its priorities, redirect drug offenders from the revolving door of recidivism to actual rehabilitation—though often enough it’s a case of habilitation with dealers learning for the first time it’s a realistic goal to live within the law.
Ironically, while the Minneapolis Police Department is regularly accused of being handcuff-happy when it comes to black males (of any age), Hennepin County judges—yes, besides Pamela Alexander—are, in fact, prone to give offenders an opportunity to respond to the wake up call of facing jail time. They’ll even facilitate things like support services, counseling and job training. Which, for the skeptical, is not a free pass. They don’t get to offend and re-offend, getting a repeated slap on the wrist. If they insist on having a hardhead, it’ll get them, as the saying goes, a sore ass. Those who take understanding and a second chance for weakness and stupidity, fully get exactly what their hand calls for. And have no one but themselves to blame for winding up behind bars, one more institutionalized statistic.
Few problems with society have a cut and dried solution. There’s no reason we should expect dealing with the dilemma of young blacks dealing drugs is going to be any different.