Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs

Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs

Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs

Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs


Race is clearly a factor in government efforts to control dangerous drugs, but the precise ways that race affects drug laws remain difficult to pinpoint. Illuminating this elusive relationship, Unequal under Law lays out how decades of both manifest and latent racism helped shape a punitive U. S. drug policy whose onerous impact on racial minorities has been willfully ignored by Congress and the courts.

Doris Marie Provine's engaging analysis traces the history of race in anti-drug efforts from the temperance movement of the early 1900s to the crack scare of the late twentieth century, showing how campaigns to criminalize drug use have always conjured images of feared minorities. Explaining how alarm over a threatening black drug trade fueled support in the 1980s for a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme of unprecedented severity, Provine contends that while our drug laws may no longer be racist by design, they remain racist in design. Moreover, their racial origins have long been ignored by every branch of government. This dangerous denial threatens our constitutional guarantee of equal protection of law and mutes a much-needed national discussion about institutionalized racism- a discussion that Unequal under Law promises to initiate.


Eighteen-year-old Edward James Clary was up for sentencing in federal court. He had been convicted of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. Clary's demographics were typical of the drug defendants who came through the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri: young, Black, male, of limited education, and without regular employment. His home was the inner city of East St. Louis, which was over 97 percent African American and an economic disaster area in which drug dealing and prostitution were significant sources of income. Clary was younger than some East St. Louis drug defendants—seventeen when he was caught carrying crack cocaine on the plane trip home after visiting his older brother in California. The small packet he carried contained 4 grams of crack, a form of cocaine base derived from powder cocaine, mixed in with 16 grams of an inert substance. The mixture had melted into an unsalable blob by the time of Clary's arrest.

With no previous convictions, Clary might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a long sentence. The public defender described him as “a goofy kid.” But neither youth nor inexperience could save him. Federal legislation prescribed mandatory sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine. The law required a ten-year minimum term of imprisonment for anyone caught with 50 or more grams of a material containing cocaine base, whatever its purity. It was February 1994, and Clary was about to become another depressing statistic in the nation's seemingly permanent war on drugs.

The anti-crack initiative that prescribed ten years of imprisonment for young Clary is part of a broader policy of imprisonment that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. This imprisonment initiative has since expanded and become entrenched in the American polity. In 2005, the United States reached a new high of 2.1 million inmates, with six times as many Americans locked . . .

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