President Trump maligned the criminal-justice system in his State of the Union speech last night. Touting a recent federal law that gives federal judges greater discretion in sentencing violent criminals and drug traffickers, Trump claimed that the previous sentencing regime “wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community.”
The claim that the criminal-justice system is racist is the mantra of left-wing activists the country over. Adopting it for the State of the Union was an unfortunate attempt to score bipartisan political points. The effort has already proven unavailing: Trump and his supporters continue to be charged with racism, while the legitimacy of law enforcement has been undermined.
It is crime, not the punishment of crime, that disproportionately harms the black community. And the demand for strict drug enforcement has always originated most forcefully in the black community. In 1959, Harlem’s New York Age newspaper called for “no leniency for the criminals, the recidivists, the junkies, dope pushers, muggers, prostitutes, or pimps. Clean out this scum—and put them away as long as the law will allow.” New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, now reviled by the elites, were passed in the 1970s because of activism in the black community, as Michael Fortner shows in Black Silent Majority.
The infamous federal crack penalties followed a similar trajectory. It was New York congressman Charles Rangel who initiated the federal crack legislation in 1986 by pointing out crack’s effect on urban youth. Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus agreed. New York congressman Alton Waldon called on his colleagues to increase federal crack penalties: “For those of us who are black this self-inflicted pain is the worst oppression we have known since slavery.”
If those 1986 federal crack trafficking penalties were anti-black, then the meth trafficking penalties were anti-white. The same weight of meth—5 grams—netted a five-year minimum sentence, the identical ratio as the original crack penalties. As recently as 2012, whites made up the largest share of federal meth prisoners—48.3 percent—while only 2.2 percent were black. Somehow this racial injustice has escaped the attention of the activists and the media. (Since 2012, Hispanics have overtaken whites as the largest share of federal meth prisoners—50.4 percent in 2016—thanks presumably to the proliferation of meth labs in Mexico. Blacks remain a negligible fraction of federally convicted meth dealers.)
Drug enforcement is not responsible for black overrepresentation in prison. In 2016, if all drug convicts had been released from federal and state lockups, the black share of the prison population would have fallen from 37.4 percent to 37.2 percent. In other words, drug convictions have no effect on the proportion of black prisoners; that proportion is driven by violent-crime rates.
Law-abiding residents of inner-city communities continue to ask the police to free them from the pall of open-air drug dealing and the scourge of illegal drug use. It is possible to have a good-faith debate about the optimal sentence length for violence and drug trafficking and even whether drug use and trafficking should be decriminalized entirely. But the charge of racial bias in the criminal-justice system is not supported by the evidence. President Trump and his advisors were wrong to throw this bone to his left-wing critics.
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