Dear President Obama:
Right after your election, somebody asked if I thought having a black president meant black people’s concerns would now receive attention at the executive level. I told them I expected the opposite.
There used to be a saying — only Nixon could go to China. Meaning, of course, that only he, as a staunch anti-communist, had the credibility to make overtures to that nation without accusations of being soft on communism. By the inverse of that political calculus, I never expected that you, as a black man, would do much to address black issues.
And the limitations of your presidency where African-Americans are concerned have never been more obvious than they are this week.
On Friday it will be 40 years since the aforementioned President Nixon asked Congress for $155 million to combat a problem he said had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency.” Thus was born the War on Drugs.
Seven presidents later, the war grinds on. And if it has made even a dent in drug use, you could not prove it by me — nor, I would wager, by most observers.
Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of international leaders including Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, issued a report that begins with this unambiguous declaration: “The global war on drugs has failed.”
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges and other law women and men, calculates we have made 40 million arrests and sunk a trillion dollars into that failure. This week, it issued its own report, criticizing you for talking a good game but doing precious little when it comes to reframing drug abuse as a matter of public health — not criminal justice.
Frankly, Mr. President, you should take this one personally. As you must know, the War on Drugs has been, in effect, a war on black men. Though whites are the nation’s biggest users and dealers of illicit drugs, blacks are the ones most likely to be jailed for drug crimes and to suffer the disruption of families and communities that comes with it.
You have done little to address these and other racial inequities of the criminal injustice system.
Here’s the exception that proves the rule: Until recently, sentencing guidelines treated one gram of crack cocaine (i.e., the “black” drug) the same as 100 grams of regular cocaine (i.e., the “white” drug). You signed a law changing that 100-to-one disparity. It is now an 18-to-one disparity. Pardon me if I don’t break out the confetti.
Here’s the thing, Mr. Obama: Our last three presidents are known — or in George W. Bush’s case, strongly believed — to have used illicit drugs when they were young. None of you were caught.
But what if you had been? They might have been given a second chance by some judge who saw merit or potential in them. They might still have gone on to become productive men.
Mr. President, what do you think would most likely have happened to you?
You know the answer as well as I do. And what you know should compel you to do something about it. No, that might not be politic, but it would definitely be right.
The most fitting way to mark the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs is to ensure the 41st never comes.