Pain & Policy: Why Reparative Justice Is Needed To End The War on Drugs

Kirsten West Savali/THE ROOT   2/28/18

What is the color of pain? Is it the color of red blood spilling onto concrete? Is it green like the dirty money folded into the back pockets of politicians who would rather incarcerate black youths than educate them?

It is no conspiracy that this nation, which holds itself in such high esteem, despite being the prison warden of the world, has conspired against the very communities that were forced to build it on their backs.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports:

  • People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal-justice system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug-law violations.
  • Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.
  • Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory-minimum sentence for black people than for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory-minimum sentence in 2011, 38 percent were Latino and 31 percent were black.
  • Black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.It is no secret that the color of pain is black, and it is neither fatalistic nor nihilistic to come to that conclusion. It is neither a diminishing nor rejection of black joy, black resilience or black futures to make that plain. From draconian drug policies to disenfranchisement, money-bail bond systems to civil-asset forfeiture, food and housing instability to police officers killing black people with impunity—and preying on vulnerable black women simply because they can—this system was designed to enslave black people and ration out freedom.So, what does justice look like within a white supremacist police state that lies to itself about the depth of its own character? What freedom dreams can we conjure within a system created to criminalize, dehumanize and destroy us?

    Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, the visionary behind DPA’s Black History Month series, and 2016 The Root 100 honoree, has consistently and unapologetically maintained that the history of the drug war in this country is inextricably linked to black history. She’s not wrong.We can’t discuss the history of black America without acknowledging that the Nixon administration camouflaged its war on black people by causing hysteria around drugs, nor without acknowledging the Jim Crow-era drug policies that continue to define Bill de Blasio’s New York City.

    We can’t discuss the history of black America without discussing mass incarceration, the disappearing of black men into the jaws of the criminal-(in)justice system, the vilification of black mothers suffering through addiction and the state-sponsored police slaying of black children.

    We can’t ignore that the drug war has influenced everything from inhumane immigration policies to racist housing policies. We can’t ignore that generational poverty has been equated to moral bankruptcy in this country; nor can we ignore that harm reduction for some working-class or poor black people is less about battling addiction and more about navigating institutionalized, systemic anti-blackness. Grief, trauma, addiction, stigma, punishment: This is the cycle that must be broken.

  • For some black people, it is an act of self-perseverance to point to black people doing well by most metrics and say, “Look, all of us aren’t selling weed or living in the hood or in jail.” And it is this line of classist, condescending thinking that led many black people to support tough-on-crime/tough-on-drugs legislation under both President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton without looking at the oppressive conditions that often lead to both. In this country, more than any other, violent drug policy has been carved out of black flesh.The color of pain is black, but so is the color of freedom.

    “Black people have been the most severely impacted by the war on drugs,” Frederique said. “And in this moment when white faces have caused the nation to have a critical interrogation about what to do about drugs, black people need the whole story so, in the moment, that we can demand the necessary acknowledgment, atonement and action to build our communities.”

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