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The rest of the story: Black women and the War on Drugs

A response to Jay Z’s exciting new project, from Prohibition to Gold Rush

Nobody drops a game-changer like the Carter family. Beyoncé unveiled an entire visual album at the stroke of midnight, got us into Formation on the eve of the Super Bowl and redefined lemonade for a generation. This morning it was Jay Z. Hova strolled onto the homepage of The New York Times with a four-minute narration of illustrated video exploring the racialized ravages of America’s drug war and was like, “I’ma just leave this here.”

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The fire collaboration is the latest from the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the most respected change agents in the multidecade struggle for sentencing reform and sane drug policy. Progressive journalist, writer, and studio artist Molly Crabapple is the swift arm bringing life to the pen and ink representations of three decades of poor drug policy, mandatory sentencing, and explosive incarceration rates. Jay’s distinctive voice traces the trajectory of American imprisonment from 1986 to 2016, moving deftly from President Ronald Reagan’s shredding of the social safety net to President Bill Clinton’s crime bill to the new economy of legal marijuana that now excludes African-Americans and Latinos. dream hampton’s production genius brings the piece together.

Much respect to the alliance, dream, Molly, and Jay for this effort. It is a necessary intervention in this electoral season when the media seems determined to ignore any substantive discussion of policies impacting the lives of the most vulnerable Americans. It is important, but it is only half the story.

If Jay has given us a “History” of the War on Drugs, allow me to offer a “Herstory” of the War on Drugs. Don’t get it twisted, this ain’t beef. I ain’t the real Roxanne. And this ain’t exactly Rap Genius either. My goal here isn’t to annotate the piece as it stands. Although a good syllabus could emerge from quality citations on this piece. Get on it, Professor Dyson! I offer these lines to expand our understanding of how black communities were distorted and destroyed by the politics, policies, and philosophies of America’s misguided drug war. We need a bigger frame to ensure sisters are in the picture. This is that intersectional expansion.

Let’s begin at the beginning, where Jay begins.

In 1986, when I was coming of age, Ronald Reagan doubled down on the war on drugs that was started by Richard Nixon in 1971. Drugs were bad. Fried your brain. Drug dealers were monsters. The sole reason neighborhoods and major cities were failing. No one wanted to talk about Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools, and the loss of jobs across America. — Jay Z

President Richard Nixon’s drug war is the older sibling of hip-hop, born just two years before that Sedgwick Avenue house party that would ultimately birth its own most prescient cultural critic. Like hip-hop, public policy needs rhetorical strategy. Even as black Americans were pressing for full citizenship in the civil rights revolution, lawmakers were stepping into the cipher to test “cultural deviance” as a battle strategy for public opinion. Citing pathology, they could shift public attention away from structural inequities burdening poor black communities. Jay recalls being labeled a monster in his own neighborhood when he was just a young man.

He wasn’t alone; leaders from both political parties discovered that a sure route to public notoriety was to climb the ladder of black women’s bent and broken backs.

Take Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, written when it was legal to deny housing on the basis of race, legal to pay workers different wages on the basis of race, and routine to deny school admission to black students. Despite the overwhelming barriers facing black folk, Moynihan concluded, black women were the main problem in our own communities. “A fundamental fact of Negro American family life is the often reversed roles of husband and wife,” and he added, “There is probably no single fact of Negro American life so little understood by whites.” Come on, everyone knows black women’s hair is the single fact of black American life least understood by whites. Can you feel posthumous side-eye sir?

Moynihan’s conclusions granted permission to generations of policymakers to imagine poor black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children’s futures. Instead of engaging black women as creative citizens doing the best they could in tough circumstances, the report labeled them as unrelenting cheats unfairly demanding assistance from the system.

This made it easier for Reagan to turn black women into Cadillac-driving welfare queens in the 1980s. It was simple for the American public to believe sensational headlines and popular movies in the 1990s blaming black mothers as the cause of social and economic decline through the epidemic of “crack babies.” Listen. Halle Berry got caught out there with this madness. Nah, we didn’t forget Losing Isaiah. We are going to let it slide because we know you had to work, but we did not forget. The reality is these so-called crack babies were a myth. What seemed to be the living, squealing, suffering, embodied evidence of pathological black womanhood turns out to be a media creation. Twenty-five years later, there is no evidence that use of crack actually causes abnormal babies, even though the media insisted this link was true. The crack baby was and is a racial myth – a myth with very real consequences.

Hustle became the sole villain and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude. In the 1990s, incarceration rates in the U.S. blew up. Today we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. — Jay Z

Crack babies are a myth, but alcohol and tobacco have well-documented and extremely negative effects during pregnancy. Alcohol and tobacco have something else in common — good lobbyists representing in Washington and in state capitals across the country. Maybe that is why you can’t be arrested for arriving to give birth drunk, but in many states you can be arrested if you have illicit drugs in your system when you give birth. Arrested. Not offered drug counseling or prenatal care. Arrested. Many of those states have, in turn, seen a substantial decline in poor women seeking prenatal care. Perhaps since, no surprise, 70 percent of women charged with fetal abuse are women of color. I wonder why they are the ones being tested.

While we are dragging pregnant black women off to jail, no one is held accountable for the one factor that has been shown consistently to have lasting effects on the health and life outcomes of mothers and children — poverty. Nearly a quarter of American children live in poverty, black infants are far more likely to be born into poverty, more likely to die in their first year, and more likely to suffer the health effects of poverty for a lifetime. A 2015 report by Save the Children also ranked the United States last among developed nations for maternal health outcomes, largely because of the racial disparities for black women. And maybe I missed it, but has anyone been charged for poisoning the children of Flint, Michigan, with lead yet?

But as Jay says. No one wants to talk about that.

The war on drugs exploded the U.S. prison population, disproportionately locking away blacks and Latinos. — Jay Z

Once the public has been convinced that culture and choices, not structures or policies, are to blame for bad outcomes, solutions coalesce around individual punishments rather than systemic change. Let’s lock up the bad guys instead of changing the bad laws. The prison population exploded and the effects of that explosion were not gender-neutral. The war on drugs was especially pernicious for black women.

Even though the total number of men behind bars is larger than the total number of women, the rate of growth for women has been faster. According to data from the Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent. These are disproportionately black women. The Department of Justice reports the rate of incarceration is almost twice as high for black versus white women, 113 per 100,000 compared with 51 per 100,000. Given that nearly 60 percent of these women are mothers who were caring for minor children before their sentencing, the jailing of black women has a devastating effect on black children and communities. Research suggests maternal incarceration can have a particularly acute effect on children’s mental and emotional well-being.

Judges’ hands were tied by tough-on-crime laws and they were forced to hand out mandatory life sentences for simple possession and low-level drug sales. My home state of New York started this with Rockefeller laws. — Jay Z

Most women in federal prison are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, often conspiracy charges. The public hears drug conspiracy and thinks of large-scale organizations operating across borders. Think instead of a woman living with an infant and her boyfriend. Given that the overwhelming majority of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and childhood trauma, it is likely this woman is in a situation where she or her children may experience abuse. If her boyfriend sells drugs from the apartment and she is arrested and asked if she knows anything, she has two choices. She can confirm her knowledge of the drug sales or deny it. If she confirms, she can be evicted. She may suffer violence. If she refuses to cooperate, she faces harsh mandatory minimum sentencing.

Jay tells us to remember his home state of New York’s Rockefeller laws. I ask you to remember the story from my home state of Virginia, Kemba Smith. Kemba is poster child for how these drug laws swept up black women who were guilty of little more than being victims. She was seven months’ pregnant, had no criminal record, was charged with a nonviolent offense, and was in an abusive relationship with a man who ran a major drug ring. Still, Kemba was sentenced to 24 years in prison as a result of mandatory minimum drug laws. It is Kemba’s graduation photo on the cover of Emerge magazine that haunts the nightmare of those college-bound girls whose suburban childhoods didn’t look like Jay’s Brooklyn upbringing. Her story said this was a war with weapons powerful enough to lay to ruin the Different World dreams of black girls.

Long after the crack era ended, we continued the war on drugs. — Jay Z

In 1999, Sharanda Jones was 23 and had an 8-year-old daughter when she was arrested and convicted on one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Conspiracy. She was given a life sentence. Life without the possibility of parole. At 23. For a single count of a nonviolent offence. In May 2014, having already spent 15 years in a maximum security prison, she wrote a heart-wrenching letter, trying to help the world see the madness of this injustice.

“There is no reduction, no good behavior, that will ever reduce my sentence and allow me to return to society. I know that, unless President Obama (or one of his successors) commutes my sentence, I will die in prison. A life sentence in the federal system is just a very slow death.”

Clinton granted clemency to Kemba Smith in 2000. President Barack Obama granted clemency to Sharanda Jones in 2016. They are finally free, but these are just two stories out of the hundreds of thousands of women still suffering in a system where our national response to black women who are guilty of being victims of poverty, of structural inequality, of abuse, and of trauma, to lock them away; strip them of parental rights; permanently damage their ability to seek education, secure housing, start businesses, and choose their elected representatives. And it begins when they are girls. Black girls are suspended, criminalized, pushed out of school and into a juvenile system where they receive disproportionately harsh sentences, often in the wake of severe emotional and sexual trauma.

The war on drugs is an Epic Fail. — Jay Z

Jay and his collaborators have drawn our attention back to this critical issue. We must look and listen and grapple with the cost of this war — not just the $51 billion the United States wastes annually. (Dollars that could be spent infrastructure, education, or really anything else.) This abbreviated history asks us to calculate the cost of lost genius, broken families, hollow communities, and stolen futures caused by decades of ill-advised policing and draconian sentencing. We should do the math this video is asking of us. Then multiply it.