It is no coincidence that black men are six times more likely to be convicted of a drug offense than white men, while the same amount of both races are found selling and using drugs. (The Hamilton Project). This is the disturbing consequence of the racial disparity that is present in our justice system today but is a byproduct of previous legislation. In the late 1900s, as drugs became common in communities across the U.S., administrations passed concerning laws that imposed heavy mandatory minimums on drug offenders. Including non-violent, first-time offenders. Consequently, our nation has witnessed a dramatic rise of minorities in prison, leading to a blatant denial of their civil rights. While this new epidemic has surged through our country, affecting millions of individuals, our government has done nothing to nullify the effects of mass incarceration but is rather at the epicenter of the disruption. For example, as recently as the 1960s, politicians advocated for more severe punishments for drug-related crimes, which specifically targeted minorities. One of President Nixon’s top aides, John Ehrlichman, stated,
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Although legislators didn’t penalize one race over the other, the laws that were directed to criminalize drug activity had the same effect: creating a racial disparity that continues today. The criminal system places harsher sentences for crack-related offenses than for cocaine. Because crack offered a much cheaper option, yet was still equally as addictive as cocaine, this drug spread rampantly through impoverished communities. Blacks had a higher risk to use and possess this drug, which consequently put them at a high prospect of receiving lengthy prison sentences. A person found with five grams of crack will face a mandatory minimum of five years, while somebody else who possesses cocaine will receive the same sentence, only if they carry five hundred grams of cocaine. (American Civil Liberties Union). As a result, blacks account for 90% of the one and a half million drug-related offenses each year, and the African American race has since become the most common ethnicity found in our prison system. (Human Rights Watch).
With a surge of minorities incarcerated, prison conditions deteriorated substantially. In the Attica Prison Riot of 1971, blacks and Latinos, who constituted 78% of the prison population, violently protested for healthier living conditions as well as more educational and rehabilitative opportunities. (Prison Policy Initiative). Minorities also must face racially motivated attacks perpetrated by prison guards and other inmates. Mohamed Sharif, a Muslim inmate, was left brain dead after being racially attacked by a fellow prisoner who shared the same cell. As a result of the racial disparity found in mass incarceration, minorities are frequently subjected to violence by prison guards and other inmates, as well as longer periods of time in solitary confinement.
There is no question that our current justice system, which issues cruel sentences to minorities, coupled with the poor treatment that they receive while incarcerated, is a definitive contribution to the racial disparities found in our country. Nevertheless, it is in the hands of the government to put an end to the perpetuation of racial inequities.