Every five to 15 years we go through a ritual of focusing on the young black male crisis. In 2008 it was the Jena Six case. Before that, it was the Rodney King beating and the uprising in 1992 after LA police officers were acquitted. This time it’s the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy.
Watching the Congressional Black Caucus’ recent Emergency Summit on Urban Violence on C-SPAN, I saw something that made me wanna holla. As Trayvon’s father, Tracey Martin, spoke, the camera briefly turned to U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, one of the founders of this group of legislators focused on “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans and others of similar experience and situation.” Rangel looked as though he were dozing. This quick camera shot wasn’t as bad as the embarrassing photo of a supine Rangel on the front page of the New York Post asleep on a beach chair at his former Punta Cana Resort property in the Dominican Republic. But seeing Rangel, currently the longest serving black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, apparently dozing off raised my blood pressure.
The Black Caucus was holding this summit at Chicago State University in reaction to the alarming homicides particularly in Chicago. The killings where my wife and I reared our children are often linked to gang battles and turf beefs over drugs, but a key supplier of the misery is actually Capitol Hill.
The government’s so-called War on Drugs, which dates back to 1870, has exacerbated deaths in the ‘hood. This failed modern version that began under the Nixon Administration and heightened under Republican and Democratic presidents, has wreaked havoc. Its mandatory minimum sentences and overall unjust guidelines for crack (used primarily by blacks, Latinos and the poor) compared to powder cocaine (used mostly by whites and the rich) has devastated communities of color. So what does this have to do with Rangel?
The decorated Korean War veteran, who fully understands the high cost of combat, was among the main legislators beating the war drums. A former prosecutor in New York, Rangel built his congressional career riding the “tough on crime” bandwagon of the 1980s. He was so out front that in a 1989 feature article, Ebony, then the organ of black America, titled Rangel “The Front-Line General” of the war. Rangel even accused President Reagan of being soft on drugs and praised Nancy’s “just say no” campaign. Yes, like many people, Rangel was outraged over drugs and increased violence in the community, but he and other legislators knew of the failed Prohibition Era policies of the 1920s that unleashed organized crime and homicides symbolized by – you guessed it – Chicago gangsters. Like the politicians, Christian conservatives were also misguided in the 1920s and again in the 1980s as fear and personal ambition fueled fervor. So, Rangel, a son of Harlem who has been in office since defeating the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1970, led the charge in a so-called moral war that has ravaged his own community. Many of his black colleagues have been sitting along side in a haze as the body count mounts.
The carnage has been well documented by the NAACP:
- From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Blacks and Latinos represent about 1.3 million
- About two thirds of the blacks and Latinos in prison are non-violent drug offenders
- Blacks are 14% of drug users, but represent 37% of drug arrests
- Five times as many Whites are using drugs as Blacks, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
- Americans are only five percent of the world’s population, but represent 25% of the world’s prisoners
Many of these prisoners are first time offenders who were locked up for possessing or using small amounts of drugs. Many parents are snatched from their homes for making terrible choices, or for being in the wrong place at the right time. Their children have paid too, left behind to be raised by the mentality of the streets. Many are low-level drug dealers lured by a culture that glorifies kingpins. Young black males often kill each other as a consequence of the street justice that comes with the drug trade. Without consistent parental guidance, particularly absent fathers to show them an honest work ethic, they are motivated to “get rich or die trying.” Others are motivated to put food on the table or to buy diapers for their babies. The failed policy has further pitted cops against a community they are supposed to serve, fracturing an already tense, tenuous relationship. Rewarded financially for high arrest statistics, police have become more like occupying soldiers raiding homes in search of (and often planting) drugs, treating U.S. citizens as if they are foreign combatants.
Two documentaries, The House We Live In and How to Make Money Selling Drugs are must see films to understand the drug war’s misery. Rangel and his colleagues should schedule another summit to view these films together.
Rangel has skillfully mounted his career on this so-called war. He has played both the “tough on crime” and “speak truth to power” roles. He backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the mandatory minimum sentences that hiked the incarceration rate. This is the act whose damage U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he would attempt to mitigate. Holder’s changes include directing U.S. attorneys across the country to establish local guidelines to determine when federal charges should and shouldn’t be filed. Meanwhile, realizing the destruction and high costs of mandatory minimums for non violent offenders, several states have already adjusted their laws.
Rangel has also shifted some with the political winds. He supported The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced crack and powder cocaine disparities from 100-1 to 18-1. He even supported the proposed Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 to end federal criminal penalties tied to the drug. But Rangel’s strategic pivot happened well after establishing his personal career and financial security, including his congressional pension. Meanwhile the damage to his people in Harlem and across the nation has been done and continues.
More than $1 trillion has been spent the past 40-plus years in the so-called War on Drugs. As the Black Caucus holds these “talks” for solutions to urban violence, it should start with itself. Some other veteran members – among them U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California – have been outspoken against this attack on the black community. However, the Black Caucus ought to admit, that in terms of the drug war, they have failed tragically to fulfill their goal of “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans…” If the Civil Rights Movement is the second Civil War and Affirmative Action is the second Reconstruction, the War on Drugs has triggered what author Michelle Alexander has termed “The New Jim Crow,”–a must read book on America’s mass incarceration of people of color. This so-called war – Rangel’s War – has set the community back in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Will this be the Black Caucus’ legacy?
From poverty to terror, the phrase “the war on” is basically a sign that Congress is engaged in another reactionary, poorly thought out and expensive doomed policy with tragic consequences. The Black Caucus should lead the correction of this failure by publicly repenting on behalf of the U.S. Congress for its sin against black America. The Black Caucus should call for an immediate end to the War on Drugs and replace it with an urban Marshall Plan to infuse training and jobs through infrastructure rehabilitation projects. The plan should include addiction counseling funds, support and the automatic expungement of the criminal records of non-violent drug offenders. Give these folks a shot at getting good jobs and becoming productive taxpaying citizens – people who could restore their families and urban communities.
A good place and time for the Black Caucus to do this is during its foundation’s upcoming 43rd Annual Legislative Conference, Sept. 18-21 in Washington. There will be plenty of ministers willing to help them repent and C-SPAN can capture the moment for the entire world to see. And leading this prayer of atonement (and to save his legacy) should be U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my claims? If you agree, will you bring the issue before your congregation? Post your thoughts and let’s start a conversation.