Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It is Time to End the Insanity of our Nation’s Drug Laws

Back in the early 80s, when I was still in high school, I was asked if I wanted to sell drugs by two kids I knew who lived in the Brewster-Douglass Homes public housing projects. It was not the first time – nor would it be the last time – I was asked about getting into the drug game.

It would have been easy to become a drug dealer. I lived only two blocks from the Brewster-Douglass Homes, at the time, the largest, and one of the most dangerous, housing projects in the city of Detroit, a place where out-in-the-open drug dealing was easy to find and easy to get involved in.

Brewster-Douglass was actually two housing projects. The Brewster Homes, the nation's first federally funded public housing development for blacks, were completed in 1941. The Fredrick Douglass Homes were built between 1942 and 1952. The combined housing projects were five city blocks long and three city blocks wide. At their peak, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people lived in them.

During the 1970s, when I was growing up, the Brewster's as we called them, was one of the worst areas of concentrated poverty in the city of Detroit. Joblessness, single-parented households, welfare dependency, drug abuse, crime, and gun violence were major problems.

By the 1980s, when the crack epidemic hit the city of Detroit, the problems in the "projects" got even worse. But, crack seemed to be different from other drugs I had seen in the neighborhood such as heroin. Crack was cheaper, the high was very intense, and it seemed to be everywhere, wrecking the lives of individuals and their families, destroying the very fabric of the entire community with a force unseen before.

Few families, including my own, were untouched by crack.

Although I never sold drugs (and though I have seen people get high, I have never tried crack), I must admit: I was tempted to hustle!

Selling crack was a way to make quick money, and lots of it. I saw young men that I grew up with become, what I called at the time, "ghetto superstars." They drove fancy cars, wore thick gold chains and expensive leather sneakers (we call them gym shoes back in the "D"), and sported fur lined Max Julian coats. And, they had, I envied the most, all the "pretty" ladies.

It should come as no surprise that for many young black males growing up in the extreme poverty of the Brewster-Douglass projects, the lure of the drug trade was powerful and too hard to resist. With all the money to be made and women to be had, it is easy to see why so many young men become "street entrepreneurs."

Drug dealing was certainly glamorous; but, drug dealing was also extremely dangerous, generating unparalleled levels of gun violence and death.

Hence, on the one hand, the demand for crack was phenomenal and the profits from selling drugs were through the ceiling. On the other hand, as rival drug crews – such as, "Young Boy Incorporated," "Best Friends", "Pony Down", "Black Mafia Family" and "The Chambers Brothers" – fought over territory, the body count increased all over the motor-city, especially in the Brewster projects.

By the mid-1980s, widely exaggerated claims about the extreme potency of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and violent turf battles over drug markets in America's inner-cities caught the attention of then President Ronald Regan and members of Congress. A "War on Drugs" was declared and Congress passed the notorious 100 to 1 sentencing quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Sentencing policies, as a consequence of the war on drugs, resulted in a dramatic increase in the prison population.

For the last several decades, criminal justice and prison reform advocates have been pushing members of Congress to treat powder and crack cocaine the same. Under current federal law, 5 grams of crack cocaine will get you a 5 year minimum sentence. With powder cocaine, you need 100 times that amount to trigger a similar sentence.

As most people know, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity has had a major impact on people of color. Excessive and harsh, current drug laws have generated huge racial disparities in the U.S. prison population.

General speaking, the nation's prisons are bursting at the seams. According to The Sentencing Project, America leads the world in incarceration, with about 2.3 million people in prison and jail. The racial dimensions of the U.S. prison population are staggering. They report that about 6 out of 10 prisoners are people of color. Astonishingly, one in ten (10.4%) black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2008, as were 1 in 26 (3.8%) Latino males, compared to 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males, in the same age group.

As a result of the so-called "war on drugs, roughly three out of four people in prison for a drug offense are a racial or ethnic minority. For black males, one out of eight is in prison or jail on any given day.

Congress enacted these drug laws during the height of the so-called crack epidemic of the 1980s. Widely embraced by both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, over the years, efforts to change this outrageously insane 100 to 1 ratio have received stiff opposition, until now.

At last, a bit of sanity is emerging in the nation's Capital. On March 17, members of the Senate passed the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, a bill that will change the punishment for crack cocaine to 18 to 1.

Although the Senate bill is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to eliminate the racial disparities that have been created by the nation's failed drug policies. The Senate bill still maintains a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

In order to become law, this bill must be reconciled with a House bill that made it out of committee last year. The bills are different. The House Judiciary committee version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act completely eliminates the sentencing disparity.

It is time to end the insanity of our nation's drug laws. There is no reason to treat powder and crack cocaine differently. They are the same drug! Please call your members of the Senate and encourage them to support the House's version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Ever since the publication in 1966 of sociologist James S. Coleman report Equality of Educational Opportunity, there has been a raging debate about how to close the racial gap in educational achievement.

Coleman's report ignited a firestorm of controversy. Using data from over 600,000 students and teachers across the country, Coleman and his team of researchers concluded that academic success was related more to the social composition of the school, the student's sense of control of his environment and future, the verbal skills of teachers, and the student's family background, than to the quality of the student's school.

The researcher's most controversial finding, and the one that most policy makers and the media focused on, was that Black students do better in racially integrated setting.

By the mid-1970s, however, after a decade of intense opposition to busing by White parents and White flight to the suburbs to avoid school integration, Coleman concluded in another report that school integration had failed, and that the window of opportunity to achieve quality integrated education had closed.

Coleman's change of heart angered many of his former supporters, especially in the progressive community. Though they were unsuccessful, some members of the American Sociological Association even tried to expel him (he later was elected president of the association in 1991).

By the 1980s, a new education reform movement emerged. Shaped largely by conservative free-market ideas, this movement has held sway since – well, at least until now.

Diane Ravitch, a preeminent education historian, former assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush, and one of the leading voices for the right-wing educational establishment, has done the unimaginable. Ravitch has reversed positions on issues she has held for decades, such as standardized testing, vouchers, privatization, and the No Child Left Behind Act.

Why the change of heart? She has finally accepted a growing body of social scientific research that shows that market-based reforms are not raising student achievement. What they are doing, she now argues, is harming public education.

Ravitch now calls much of the right's educational agenda – which, it should be noted, has been largely kept in place by the Obama Administration – a fad.

"School reform today is like a freight train, and I'm out on the tracks saying. 'You're going the wrong way!'" Ravitch said in a recent interview for the New York Times.

Ravitch's shift, however, comes much too late to save what appears to be a casualty of the right-wing educational reform movement, the Kansas City, Missouri, school system and its poor, mainly black and brown, student population.

In a stunning development, just before the start of classes in the fall, the Kansas City school district plans to shut down nearly half its schools. The moribund school system has seen student enrollments drop by nearly half over the last decade, largely as a result of students leaving for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools, and the suburbs.

What the Kansas City school system plans to do in just a few short months is absolutely mind boggling. In a desperate effort to close a $50 million deficit and belatedly respond to years of declining student enrollments, the district will cut hundreds of jobs (roughly 700 of 3,000 employees) and shuffle thousands of students. The reorganization plan calls for closing 29 of 61 facilities, including 26 traditional schools and three leased buildings that house early childhood programs.

The implosion of the Kansas City school system is, undoubtedly, a dream come true for right-wing educational reformers. For decades, they have been arguing that government controlled schools are obsolete and that certain administrative and structural changes – including choice, charters, merit pay and accountability – are necessary to fix the nation's ailing public schools.

Because you can always point to a few success stories, many will continue to cling to these fads. One outcome of the Kansas City fiasco, though, is not in doubt: thousands of poor, mainly black and brown students – casualties of market-based reforms – are being left behind to suffer.

So, how do we "really" close the educational gap?

On the one hand, I am a staunch believer that equality of opportunity is strongly correlated with equality of schools' resources, such as the number and quality of textbooks, teachers, facilities, and so on. Likewise, raising expectations and improving parental involvement are keys to improving educational achievement of Black and Latino schoolchildren.

However, higher expectations, more participation by parents, and more money for schools will not solve the problem – as an example, the Kansas City school district received more than $2 billion as part of a landmark school desegregation case.

I am convinced that efforts to close the racial gap in educational achievement will continue to fail until the nation deals with the problem of pervasive, concentrated urban poverty.

Over the years, I have become increasingly convinced of the validity of William J. Wilson's thesis about the devastating effects of concentrated poverty in America's central cities, disproportionately inhabited by black and brown people.

Wilson's argument is that since the 1960s, poor ghetto neighborhoods, occupied primarily by blacks and Hispanics, have experienced increasing rates of socioeconomic isolation, dislocation and disorganization, problems "created by the constraints and opportunities that the residents of the inner-city neighborhoods face in terms of access to jobs and job networks, involvement in quality schools, availability of marriageable partners, and exposure to conventional role models (the quote is from Wilson's book, The Truly Disadvantage)."

According to Wilson, as a consequence, poor ghetto neighborhoods have become increasingly characterized by inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed families, welfare dependency, serious crime and feelings of low self-efficacy.

This is the social context that far too many black and brown children are growing up in (Kansas City, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Flint, Hartford, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Liberty City, and on, and on, and on).

James Coleman got it right back in 1966: the social context in which an education takes place matters.

Our children are being set up to fail. It should come as no surprise to any of us when they do.