In 1865, under the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery was officially abolished in the United States. However, Black Americans have continued to experience forms of legal servitude through vagrancy laws, Jim Crow, and most recently, the War on Drugs. Beginning during Ronald Reagan’s presidency – fully embraced by his successors, George H.W.
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Bush and Bill Clinton – the War on Drugs became a powerful movement supported my millions of Americans as drug use and addiction became a prevalent issue of society. However, studies show that the laws put in place to fight the overwhelming drug problem in America disproportionately target black people and communities. This paper analyzes the initial movement of the War on Drugs, how drastically this movement fueled disproportionate incarceration rates, and how it particularly affects black American in the long run.
The United States experienced a crack epidemic during the early 1980’s well into the early 1990’s. Major cities through the country were flooded with crack cocaine, resulting in the government taking action. President Reagan introduced the War on Drugs as a movement intended to, “make the public aware of the growing drug problem in the country, specifically crack cocaine, while also expanding the federal budget for enforcement agencies and laws.” Though the movement was installed at a very early phase of the crack epidemic, many Americans, including black ones, were quick to support this campaign in hopes of cracking down on the drug abuse and addiction that was affecting their friends, families, and communities. And, as Nixon promised, newly introduced policies, including the Zero Tolerance Policy and Three Strike Policy, quickly proved effective in catching and imprisoning drug offenders, a large portion of them being on minor charges (Hong). As Americans watched daily arrested of drug offenders all around them, great relief and hope was felt by people who truly hoped to see change in the drug issues of the country. The movement maintained momentum, and continued to receive support and endorsements from the country and Reagan’s successors.
As “tough-on-crime” drug policies continue to be utilized today, America is now experiencing a new epidemic: disproportionate incarceration rates that disfavor black people. Hong explains that in the 1980’s, the United States was experiencing an era of globalization and deindustrialization. Inner cities were struggling as blue collar jobs, a workforce dominated by black people who lack higher education, were being lost, resulting in many individuals turning to drug dealing in order to financially support themselves (Hong). The choice drug for inner city dealers was crack cocaine for its cheaper cost. Despite being chemically identical to powder cocaine, the form most preferred by White Americans, sentencing for crack cocaine is significantly harsher, calling for a valid questioning of the said “racial neutrality” of the War on Drugs. In a study by Bobo and Thompson, it is revealed that the black incarceration rate had nearly “tripled between 1980 and 2000”, and by 2002, the country had experienced an, “increase of 900 percent of African-Americans in prison or jail since 1954.” Though drug use has not significantly decreased, nonviolent and first time black offenders are serving lengthy sentences and acquiring criminal records at an alarming rate. The War on Drugs is not accomplishing its stated mission, yet incarceration numbers for drug related crimes are higher than they’ve ever been. There is no supported evidence that black Americans are more likely to use drugs than White Americans, however it is evident that black America has heavily felt the effects of drug laws through disproportionate incarceration.
The effects of mass incarceration are felt long after time is served. It is proven that when going into an interview, a black person will already face discrimination for their race, but in a study conducted by Bobo and Thompson, they prove that a man with a criminal record will be reduced to just a “5% chance of getting a call back.” The economic set back of deindustrialization that sent black people into drug business, use, and eventually the criminal system in the first place, only set them up to be phased with further economic hardship through struggles to find employment after serving their time. Not only are the arguably racially driven policies of the War on Drugs affecting black people in the short run, but also in the long run, essentially forcing thousands of young men and woman into a vicious cycle of drug dealing and involvement by means of survival. Along with difficulty in finding work, black people with felony charges are likely to lose their right to vote. (Hong) This modern form of disenfranchisement affects black America by essentially revoking their political voices, and allowing their drug offenses to affect them far beyond the prison system. These tenably counterproductive government practices have done close to nothing in addressing the drug issues of the country, but for several decades have held thousands of black Americans hostage, placing them in a position of economic and political immobility for mostly minor and first time offenses. The effects of drug laws on the black community in the United States have been felt since the dawn of the War on Drugs, from the second they encounter law enforcement, to well after they have paid for their crimes, and for many, until the day they die.
In the United States, 174 people die everyday from drug overdoses, a number that has significantly increased since the beginning of the War on Drugs (Jalal et al). Though strong enforcement of policies have not changed, and have arguably become more aggressive, the drug problem has remained prevalent while prisons have remained packed, disproportionately with black people. When revisiting the initially stated goal that kicked off the War on Drugs, can America honestly say that the goal has been accomplished? Instead of initiating and maintaining any statistically significant decreases in the drug use of Americans, studies have showed and continue to show that the War on Drugs has instead been responsible for the survival of legalized and institutionalized slavery through mass incarceration. Black communities and inner cities continue to suffer through cycles of arrests, imprisonment, and economic turmoil, as said drug laws disproportionately target black America.
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