Democrats and the Drug War

By Alan Bean

New York Times columnist Charles Blow asks why Democrats have shown such loyal support for a drug war that targets one of its core constituencies.  Here’s the salient quote:

“It is, in part, callous political calculus. It’s an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions. The fact that they are ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic men and, by extension, the communities they belong to barely seems to register.”

Exhibit A is the Obama administration’s staunch support for the Byrne Grant program.  The Tulia drug sting (which created Friends of Justice) was funded with Byrne money.  This partly explains why George Bush made drastic cuts to the program–it had embarrassed the Lone Star State.  Barack Obama knows that most Byrne funding is channelled into statistic-generating narcotics programs that (a) lock up disproportionate numbers of poor black men and (b) do absolutely nothing to address the harms associated with drug abuse. 

Tragically, support for the drug war has always been a cheap way for democrats to play the tough-on-crime card. 

Prior to Ms. Alexander’s eloquent dissection of the racial dynamics of the race war, I’m not sure this column could have been written.  Blow’s take on the Byrne Grant issue has clearly been influenced by Alexander’s incisive analysis:

. . . in her fascinating new book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander argues that the American justice system is being used to create a permanent “undercaste — a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” and to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics in the same way that Jim Crow laws were once used to discriminate against blacks.

This wave of arrests is partially financed, either directly or indirectly, by federal programs like the Byrne Formula Grant Program, which was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to rev up the war on drugs. Surprisingly, this program has become the pet project of Democrats, not Republicans.

Whatever his motives, President George W. Bush sought to eliminate the program. Conservative groups backed his proposal, saying the program “has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.”

But Democrats would have none of it. In the last year of the Bush administration, financing had been reduced to $170 million. In March of that year, 56 senators signed onto a “bipartisan” letter to ranking members of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging them to restore nearly $500 million to the program. Only 15 Republicans signed the letter.

Even candidate Obama promised that he would restore funding to the program.

The 2009 stimulus package presented these Democrats with the opportunity, and they seized it. The legislation, designed by Democrats and signed by President Obama, included $2 billion for Byrne Grants to be awarded by the end of September 2010. That was nearly a 12-fold increase in financing. Whatever the merits of these programs, they are outweighed by the damage being done. Financing prevention is fine. Financing a race-based arrest epidemic is not.

You can find the entire column here.

5 thoughts on “Democrats and the Drug War

  1. The only way the Democrats will abandon the War on Drugs is if one of their core constituencies, or two of them, African-Americans and Hispanics, come out stronglyin oppposition to the WOD. “If you want our vote, stop the New Jim Crow.” If they hear that, loudly, they’ll start taking steps in that direction.

  2. PS: It’s crucial that African-American clergy speak out for justice, as in the Civil Rights movement. We need a strong MLK type voice from there.

  3. Alan.

    I think that Blow’s analysis is too kind to the Democratic party elite. It is more than their wanting to be seen as being “tough on crime”. In fact the Democratic elite want to ditch their inconvenient voter base. They are embarassed by the fact that so many poor people vote for them and would like to discourage them from doing so both by having as many as possible felony disenfranchised and the rest discouraged as they perceive the Democratic party’s obvious hostility to their interests.

    Americans are still irrationally attached to the idea that the Democratic party is leftist or at least liberal, it is not! The Democratic party wants to follow the Republican party further to the right and they can do this if the can ditch the nonelite voter base in exchange for some others drawn away from the Republican party.

    Many Democratic leaning voters are extremely confused, witness the confusion and disagreement in this very long thread at Jonathan Turley’s blog.

  4. Charles.

    What astonishes me is the lack of black spokesmen apart from Michelle Alexander speaking out against the racist bias in the drug war.

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