Dear Mr. President:
Congratulations on your second inauguration. Let’s talk about drugs.
As it happens, today’s festivities fall on Martin Luther King Day. This isn’t the first time you and Dr. King have encountered one another on the calendar. You first accepted your party’s nomination for the presidency on the 45th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Though King is a hero for you, one suspects you find mild annoyance in that confluence of dates, given that it draws attention to that which you have assiduously ignored. Meaning, of course, race and the milestone your presidency represents.
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Not that anyone should blame you for this. Your predicament is reminiscent of a fairly obscure comic book character named Black Bolt. Because his merest whisper can shatter mountains, he is doomed to live as a mute. That’s an apt description of you with regard to race. The social and political dynamics of your unique position are such that whatever you say on the subject is magnified a hundredfold, reverberates through the echo chamber of media until it drowns out everything else. And any racially related action you take is magnified beyond even that, as your opponents will surely use it in an effort to shrink and delimit your presidency.
On the other hand, when have they ever needed an excuse to do that?
Mr. President, one should always be cautious in speculating what might happen “if so-and-so were alive today,” if only because it is unfair to “so-and-so,” who gets used like an advertising mascot and has no say in the matter. But, that said, one cannot help but believe that if your hero Martin – our hero Martin – were with us today, he would be deeply concerned about the inequities and iniquities of the so-called War on Drugs.
For over 40 years, it has fallen on African-American men like a hammer, a litany of selective enforcement and incarceration funneling white drug offenders into diversion programs or otherwise giving them the benefit of judicial discretion, while locking up black ones in numbers that are nothing less than a national scandal. In some states, a black drug offender is as much as 50 times more likely than a white one to be incarcerated
For the African-American community, it is a state of affairs that has implications far beyond the injustice system. It touches on poverty (former felons are often denied employment); father absence (it is hard to be a father from behind a glass barricade); housing (former felons can be banned from public housing); education (drug offenders can be denied student loans); voting rights (former felons often lose the ballot).
A handful of your predecessors, Mr. President, at significant political risk, struck away most of the legal strictures binding African-Americans to lives of paltriness, penury and pain. But this one remains, and it falls to you.
Granted, you have other things on your plate as your second term begins: immigration reform, gun control, war, the economy. Put this there, too.
African-Americans gave you 93 percent of their vote. Yes, conservatives often read into that number some conspiracy of racial solidarity against them. And yes, like so much of what conservatives say these days, that’s both silly and anti-factual. John Kerry got 88 percent of the black vote, Al Gore got 90 and neither man has ever sung an Al Green song at the Apollo Theater.
Still, it is obvious there is in the African-American community a great affection for you and pride in you. If that holds any meaning for you, you must address this issue. At some point, the failure to do so amounts to nothing less than moral cowardice.
Dismantle the failed War on Drugs, Mr. President. In so doing, you would honor Dr. King’s legacy. And help ensure your own.