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The Forgotten War on Drugs and Election ’08

by : Harry
Friday July 6, 2007 - 22:49

James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here again with Josh Scheer and in-studio guest Dr. Troy Duster. We’ve been talking off-air about the relationship between the war on drugs and unemployment in poor and minority communities. Dr. Duster, for the record, why is it critical that we understand the war on drugs as it relates to social progress and perhaps social policy?

Troy Duster: People often get trapped into the immediacy of the drug war. They believe that the police are the bad guys; they’re profiling blacks and Latinos, and that’s the end of the story. So you don’t get a sense of big economic political context to the drug war. You know if you even go back to the Opium War ( http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer... ) in the middle of the 19th century you can see it was never about opium. It was about power, control, the British, and the Japanese. That’s what it was all about. But in a very similar way, the drug war that we’ve experienced in the last 30 years is to be set in some sort of larger historical context. And that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. As a sociologist, I don’t just talk about drugs. I talk about the context. About 30 years ago, a little bit longer, there was a book written by Sidney Willhelm

( http://legalminds.lp.findlaw.com/ct...? ) . The title was provocative. It was called “Who Needs the Negro?” Now, it was a book that people thought was just outrageous. It was actually in the ’60s that I think it was published. They still called black people Negroes in those years, as you can tell from the title. And here was Willhelm’s thesis: He said, you’re going back to slavery, and you had great need for black labor. It was obvious, that’s what slavery was all about. And then he said, we move into an industrial world, blacks were leaving the South for Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. And that period, World War I breaks out, and you need black labor to either strike-break, for what’s happening with whites who were getting a little bit militant with the IWW (http://www.iww.org/) [Industrial Workers of the World], or, when whites leave and go to WWI and WWII, you got this black labor supply. Then he says that what happens in the postwar era, when whites come back from the wars, you don’t need the Negro anymore for that kind of industrial labor. The work that’s being done in the South in the cotton fields is pretty much mechanized now. And he said “who needs the Negro?”

Harris: Well, I’m going to interrupt for a second. So you’ve got this well-documented case for the unneeded Negro. But how in the world does this tie back into the war on drugs?

Duster: When he said this he then implied that there would be a development in the next 10 to 20 years that would crystallize his idea. He didn’t say what it was going to be, but he said, you watch, there’s going to happen something in this country that going to sharpen this whole issue about the redundancy ... of black employment. And sure enough, in 1954, in the age group 16 to 20, black unemployment is equal to white unemployment. ...

Harris: This is 1954?

Duster: 1954. Thirty years later, black unemployment in this age group is three and a half to four times that of white unemployment. But here are the figures. [In]1954 it’s about 12 percent each unemployment figures. In 1984, in most urban jurisdictions, blacks are about 42 percent unemployed in this age group; whites about 16 percent. Now what happened? How would you explain that industrialization which was not so bad for black people in terms of the employment in the first part of the century? Suddenly with postindustrialization ( http://www.bolender.com/Dr.%20Ron/S... ) you get this extraordinary rate of black unemployment among youth. And what we learned is that in the tertiary sector of the economy, blacks are not necessarily needed, and this was Willhelm’s point. So what you’re getting when you’re getting into banking, restauranting, and all of those activities that are not either industrial or rural. Employers are making decisions about who they want to be in these shops, selling goods, or who they want in the restaurants, waiting on tables, who they want in hotels, in these service occupations. And there you have systematic discrimination.

He said by 1984 what you’re seeing is extraordinarily high rates of black unemployment. Enter the drug war. What happens between 1980 and 2000 is the most massive building of prisons in all of U.S history. In California [in]1982, I was looking at some figures; we were spending more on higher education than on prisons. We had nine campuses on the University of California; we had about 16 state colleges. In the next period, the next 20 years, we built not a single campus, but we built, however ... we went from 11 prisons to 27 prisons. And the incarceration rate skyrockets. Now here’s the part where we get into the issue of race and incarceration. You go back to 1925 and the black rate of incarceration is about twice that of whites. By 1990 it’s eight times the rate of whites. So what’s happening here is this extraordinary acceleration in the incarceration of black people and the single most important factor is the drug war.

Harris: Talking to Dr. Troy Duster, and we’re getting into this issue of the war on drugs as it relates directly to the black community. We’ll talk a bit about racial profiling, but I have a question for you—kind of open this thing up. The statistics are certainly there: Black males who don’t graduate from high school are unemployed almost to a rate to 72 percent. I tell them they have to beat these numbers. What responsibility falls on the actual man or woman who is not employed or who is breaking the law?

Duster: That’s a great question, because as you know, listening to whether it’s Bill Cosby ( http://www.washtimes.com/metro/2004... ) or Juan Williams ( http://www.newsmax.com/archives/art... ) or increasingly colleagues and friends of mind like Bob Herbert ( http://stevegilliard.blogspot.com/2... ) who are on the progressive side of the continuum. What they’re saying more and more is that we have to look at the values and the attitudes orientation of black youth. Yes and no. On the one hand, of course, if I’m speaking to a particular black kid in my office, and I often do, I will tell him that he needs to get his act together and be purposeful and do his homework and all those virtuous things. On a public stage, however, as a matter of public policy, this is not about individuals and their values. We as a nation have a policy.

It was developed in 1987 by the DEA ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_E... ) [Drug Enforcement Administration]. It was called Operation Pipeline ( http://www.time.com/time/covers/110... ) . And the pipeline was to train 27,500 law enforcement people to look on the streets of the United States to find and to profile particular “kinds of people who would be engaged in drug dealing.” Now that’s not individual decision, that’s not individual cop.

That’s 27,000 people who are trained by the government; that’s a policy. And the goal from that level down to the individual saying “you need to get your act together” is to make this huge sociopolitical mistake which I think this nation is abundantly capable of—and we do it all the time. So, OK, let’s go back to your question. You get these individuals in your audience, and you’re telling them purposefully and correctly that if they work hard, persevere, stay in school, their chances as individuals of getting a good job are pretty good. On the other hand, if you are talking about the collective, talk about in fact that there are over 35 million black people and unemployment rates are extraordinarily high, now the question changes. What is the country as a whole going to do to increase the employment rate of this part of the population? And my answer is counterintuitive. People are always saying thing likes “you have to look at the market, you have to look at the market.” Well, it’s the market that got us here. Again, in ’54 you had unemployment rates among blacks are about equal to whites. The market, not individual black youth, spoke and we have a rate of unemployment by 1984 that’s about four times as great. So what we need to do is not look at individuals but at public policy. I think that we could have an extraordinarily successful program of reducing the unemployment rate among blacks and whites if we move to the public sector.

Let’s take the example of all the billions of dollars spent into the Iraq black hole. Let’s take about 12 billion of that and revamp the New York and Boston subways. All of a sudden we’d have employment at about 98 percent. Why? Because lots of jobs flow. Let’s take another 12 to 15 billion. You could then put in the homes of most Americans a computer. And you could then have people who were trained, as a public policy issue, to fix computers. Computers break down. I mean, I could go on with this, but the point is you could have a fast rail system between New York, Washington and Boston. It’s a joke you get on the [inaudible]. First of all it breaks down often, but here are the French and here are the Japanese with bullet trains going between Kyoto and Tokyo at extraordinary speeds. Here we are in the United States and we can’t get a planned train from Boston to New York in less than about four and a half hours. And we’re spending all this money in Iraq and that’s a direct function of the political decision-making in Washington. And that’s not to be explained by individuals, in my office, talking about taking drugs.

Harris: And that’s a good question because I know Josh wants to talk more about this war on drugs. It’s easier to set a policy to initiate the seizure of drugs than it is to initiate a policy that talks about rebuilding and the installment of social programs. Our government has proven, time after time again, that they’re not interested in that kind of policy, because that kind of policy is rebuilding—it makes sense. But clearly we don’t like that kind of policy. I’m doing a little bit of devil’s advocate here, but it’s easier to be the DEA than it is to be a friend of someone who is trying to save and rescue Latinos, blacks and suffering minorities.

Josh Scheer: I agree that maybe you can talk about not wanting to spend money, but this war on drugs has been going on, officially, since 1969. It’s gone through every president and it’s failed. And that’s something that everyone talks about, lots of people have died, millions of people in jail, and there are billions of dollars spent. At some point it’s a failed policy. We can talk about Iraq all day, but Iraq is—how many years now?—[only] four years; this war on drugs has been going on for over 30.

Duster: It’s a failed policy only in the sense if you have the big picture. If you’re a politician and you want to get reelected, it’s a great policy. I have a colleague who has written a wonderful piece it’s called “World Prohibition,” Harry Levine, and what he says, no matter what the government is, left, right or center, a theocratic or secular, it doesn’t matter. Every government in the world has an anti-drug policy, and he says the reason is that an anti-drug policy is good to get reelected. It’s good for policy, it’s good or whoever you are in power. You can claim you’re against this thing about mind-altering substances, but he says, you know, when the left, right and center agree on something, be careful. But I want to go back to this question of public policy, because in the short term, it does look like the drug war is a failure. But, however, take a look at what you described earlier. It’s easier to be a law enforcement person; it’s easier to get reelected. Now that’s taking the short term. Let’s take a look at infrastructure, something as vital as our sewage system. Here we have San Diego, Calif. In the last decade there has been about 30 or 40 serious warnings that the sewage system, now many decades old, is in danger of breaking. I mean, literally, unless we move to the infrastructure to change this kind of issue, we’re going to have sewage spilling out into the ocean and into the streets, and so on. Now at the point, politicians, like corporate executives who think only in the next quarter, are going to be called up into account and they’re going to say, “Well, why didn’t you do anything?” And the answer is that it’s just easier to have a drug enforcement policy.

It’s easier to get 25 kids off the streets for a drug bust than to convince people that you have to invest in the infrastructure with public policy. And the reason why I bring this up is that there is a direct link. It’s not as though over here we have a drug war, and over here we have public policy on sewage or fast trains. The fact is that, as Sidney Willhelm said 35 years ago, if you have a policy of public sector employment, you’re not going to have kids in the drug war. The drug war is all about survival. I think people really need to understand that if you talk to a lot of these kids, they’re [dealing] drugs just to survive. They’re not getting rich, I mean, the images that they’re driving these fancy cars, they’ve got all this jewelry. That’s like the super stars of the drug war, that’s like those who make it into the headlines. Most people are just getting by. A lot of high school kids who do the drug sales a few times a month to help Mama with the groceries. Now that’s not part of the story, because that’s not headlines. Now when you get someone with lots of rings and lots of gold driving a fancy car, now that’s a headline. But what we don’t see is that a lot of these kids are just selling drugs to help Mama get the groceries.

Scheer: And it’s probably also a good job, it’s not like there are other options.

Duster: I wouldn’t say it’s a good job. It’s a dangerous job.

Scheer: In terms of other employment, there are other employment options. They just don’t pay as well.

Duster: Yeah, but I think here, and I’m going to sound more like Juan Williams and Bob Herbert and maybe Cosby, because at the individual level, what I would say is no. It’s possible, if you really wanted to go and do things like wash people’s windows. A lot of windows need washing, brother, you know, and you could at the individual level make. ... I don’t want to step into the notion that drugs are a good job for people, or rather it’s the best alternative on the streets. I don’t think it is. I think that the individual level you can still talk about people being responsible, and working hard, and washing windows. I mean, you can still do that. I think that what that does is allow us to step out of the larger picture of national and state policies, which I think really are the issue when it comes to the drug war.

Harris: How do you address these national policies? If you tell me that, if we can come up in this room today with the answer to how to get politicians on a larger scale to address the fact that the nation is falling apart. You gave the example of San Diego; we have the pretext of Katrina. They knew for years that the levees were going to break, but it always comes down to who’s behind those walls, who will suffer the dire consequences. It’s almost like we have to speculate, well, what would happen, and if those were black people, or if this was Beverly Hills, we heard that argument. But how do we get people. ...

Duster: We do have to speculate. Look at the Berkeley Hills fire. 1989, somewhere in there, and people said that was a class fire. ... Why, because the Berkeley Hills are peopled by those with resources, and within about two or three years, many of my colleagues found themselves in even larger houses. And the reason is because they come from a class position that had a lot of insurance, and the fire was devastating. Four thousand homes burned down, but within about three to five years ... extraordinary rebuilding. Now contrast that with Katrina. Now the answer for me to your question is that we are a nation that needs a huge crisis before we act, so we are going to have to have those. Not just the levees break with Katrina and the displacement, the diaspora of [hundreds of thousands] of people of color, that we can apparently tolerate without much reaction. But when you start getting the sewage system breaking, and it’s going to affect a huge part of the middle-class population, at that point there’s going to be hell to pay. So my view is that we’re not going to convince anybody. We’re so much completely immersed in this language of the market economy. I hate to use the term because it sounds so sociological, but there is a domination, there is hegemonic control, around market economies. And if you don’t believe, try to convince someone, in the public sphere, that market fundamentalism is a mistake. And the first thing they’ll tell you is the government is the problem as opposed to the solution. Well, the private sector isn’t going to help our sewage system, it’s not going to build the subway system, it’s not going to do all the things we could do. Only the public sector is going to do that. And when we have a crisis, we’ll finally get there.

Scheer: I want to ask about an economic point. I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but the bailout of, say, the airlines, or things like that, where the government ends up having to support the private sector. I mean, couldn’t that money better serve by not doing that and going somewhere and building subways, or is it important that the government help out the private?

Duster: I don’t think that it’s an either/or; I mean there’s so much money that’s available and we can see that from the Iraq war. We’re talking about 120 billion here, 80 billion there, 60 billion there. That kind of resources, that kind of money, could be used for both. I’m happy to bail out some corporations that are flying airplanes because we all fly, we want to have them support it. Look around the world; many airlines do have public support. I think we should applaud that. Alright, the French and the Dutch and other nations help their airlines. Even the auto industries in some countries are supported by the government. I’m not opposed to government support for the private sector; I just think that we have come to the point where we don’t think that the public sector could be the solution to these massive public problems that we’re having.

Scheer: The war on drugs obviously became a popular war. There were other things like going in and saying movies are terrible or any of that kind of thing. What is going to make these people change their mind, what’s going to make politicians, or are they ever going to change their mind, or are they always going to follow that market flow?

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