Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum to all U.S. federal prosecutors to stop seeking leniency for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and start seeking the toughest penalties possible.
That’s right: the war on drugs is back, except this time not only will black people be targeted in increased numbers, so will poor white people – unfortunately, the same who voted for now-president Donald Trump. True enough, this new memorandum is reflective of what happened to the black community – from President Nixon’s “war on drugs” in the 1970s to the draconian Rockefeller laws – when mass criminalization was at its highest.
We should make no mistake that the purpose of Sessions’ push for non-leniency is to drive the number of black and brown people entering prisons and jails and is also an attempt to undo any progressive drug policy implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder – and by extension, under the Obama administration.
In September 2016, Jay Z released a video discussing why the war on drugs was and is an epic fail, describing why white men get rich for doing the same thing that have imprisoned black Americans. No matter how it’s dressed up, it’s good old-fashioned racism. The war on drugs, of course, exploded the prison population, and we will sadly continue to see an uptick because of this new directive. It’s therefore no surprise that for decades, drugs have been used to scapegoat black and Latino people.
But what’s worse, with Sessions now serving as the United States attorney general, and having previously served as a senator of Alabama (who just happened to enact racist policies every chance he could get), incarceration rates will no doubt dramatically increase for black and Latino communities.
In his latest piece for The Guardian, Steven W. Thrasher brilliantly notes, “the war on drugs is itself a kind of opiate of the white masses, hustled and imbibed to stoke white people’s fear about people of color – even as there already about 1.5 million black men already disappeared from U.S. society by early death or incarceration.” It’s clear that this iteration of the alleged war on drugs is just as racist as it was under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Now, in an attempt to justify racist policies, the Trump administration is creating false narratives of Mexican drug cartels causing a rise in drug use and distribution.
The proof is in the numbers. Data show that the black and Latino community are still prosecuted more frequently than white people for nearly every type of crime. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, out of 19,766 total federal drug cases in 2016, half were Latino, 23.6 percent were black, and 22.8 percent were white. The last two percentages may seem close, but consider proportionality: according to the last recorded U.S. Census, 77 percent of the American population is white, while 13 percent is black. The higher rate of prosecution isn’t because black people are somehow using and/or selling more drugs; it’s because black and Latino communities are more criminalized by law enforcement officials – making them more system-oppressed.
Sessions’ memo to federal prosecutors is a clear divergence from the Obama administration’s attempt at drug reform. While in Congress, Sessions vehemently opposed Obama’s efforts of reaching a sentencing reform legislation, a consensus bill that would have undeniably helped reduce rates of incarceration by being more lenient with nonviolent drug offenders.
But in Sessions and Trump’s world, anything illegal should mean “throwing away the key.” Besides being ironic – considering how many laws have been broken in the first 100 days – it’s also illogical. The U.S. government must focus its efforts on mental health and drug rehabilitation services, not on criminalizing behaviors and use.
In response to the new directive, former Attorney General Eric Holder stated, “The policy announced [today] is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
Or, said differently: Jeff Sessions is a racist and only wants to put more black and Latino people in prison for minor offenses.
Remember when then-candidate Trump made a plea to black voters by suggesting, “What the hell do you have to lose?” Our lives and bodies are literally at stake due to crass politics and racist beliefs concerning drugs and policing. So, the answer is clear: what we have to lose is freedom.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.