Last Shot for a Bush Legacy?

In a recent interview Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Senator Obama’s call for a national dialogue on race, expressing her concern that the ugly bootprints of slavery still mark America’s cultural and political landscape. Her remarks came only a month after the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination scolded U.S. officials for not doing enough to eliminate the vestiges of slavery, most notably America’s punitive drug war policies. President Bush spoke in favor of reforming some of these policies when he first took office but quickly had to turn his attention to responding to 9-11. With Secretary Rice stepping out on race, will Bush finally push for legislative reform?

Secretary Rice certainly didn’t pull any punches.  “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together – Europeans by choice and Africans in chains,” she said. “Descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that. That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.”

It’s especially hard for Americans to confront the issue when they’re supporting a new form of slavery. In a recent op-ed in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Ira Glasser, formerly ACLU’s executive director and current president of the Drug Policy Alliance, makes the case that the drug war is one of the major civil rights issues of our day. While the vast majority of drug law offenders are white, blacks represent 37 percent of those persons arrested for drugs, 53 percent of those convicted for drugs, and 67 percent of those persons imprisoned for drugs.

“[T]he racially discriminatory origin of most [drug] laws is reinforced by the disparate impact they have on racially targeted drug felons,” Glasser writes. “In the states of the Deep South, 30 percent of black men are barred from voting because of felony convictions. But all of them are nonetheless counted as citizens for the purpose of determining congressional representation and Electoral College votes. The last time something like this happened was during slavery, when three-fifths of slaves were counted in determining congressional representation.”

At the federal level no other policy is more responsible for racial disparities in the criminal justice system than the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity which punishes crack offenses 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses, even though they’re two forms of the same drug. President-elect Bush called for eliminating this disparity in 2001.

More recently President Bush commuted the sentences of two individuals serving outrageously long sentences for crack cocaine offenses. Asa Hutchinson, Bush’s first director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a former Republican Congressman, made the conservative case for reform last month in an oped in The Washington Times co-authored with former Congressman and black conservative J.C. Watts.

Republican Senators Jeff Sessions (Alabama) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) want to pass crack/powder reform legislation this year. Their bills are far from perfect ­ they would reduce the disparity from 100-to-1 to 20-to-1, which is like desegregating 60 percent of public establishments instead of all of them ­ but at least they’re moving in the right direction. Additional support can be found among other Republican Senators, like Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania) and John Cornyn (Texas).

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden (Delaware) has introduced legislation to completely eliminate the disparity and this is the bill that most Democrats are rallying around, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Biden is working with Sessions and Hatch to develop a compromise bill, but those negotiations seem to have stalled. It may take leadership from the White House to rescue this reform from partisan gridlock.

Eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity won’t erase America’s “birth defect”, but it will directly confront it. Because of draconian mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate drug law enforcement the U.S. now incarcerates more black men on a per capita basis than South Africa at the height of Apartheid. Bill Clinton ignored this racial injustice and has recently apologized for it. President Bush has less than a year to address it.

BILL PIPER is director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.