Thinking About Obama's Jena Speech

Consider the following passage, excerpted by Andrew Sullivan:

If you’re convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished. But let’s not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them. Republicans have said they think that’s wrong, Democrats think that’s wrong and yet it’s been approved by Republican and Democratic presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right. But I will, when I am President of the United States of America.

But this is a canard. To suggest that “the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them” is flatly absurd. Butch Jackson says it best.

Many years ago, Butch Jackson, the Washington D.C. based master percussionist, offered a very intriguing opinion on the ongoing crack v. powder cocaine disparity in sentencing debate. According to Jackson, who once smacked skins in rhythm for Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye, there is no debate: crack cocaine is far more destructive than powder cocaine. Thus, according to Jackson, the penalty should be much more severe for possession of crack. Of course Jackson had the unfortunate credentials to speak on the matter: he had abused both crack and powder at one time in his life.

Was it racist hysteria that led to the disparity? No. Part of it was the crack epidemic, one of the central events in the history of the prison-industrial complex. The other part was a powerful emotional reaction to the tragic death of Len Bias.

Twenty years ago University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose just hours after being selected second in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. His death sparked a national whirlwind of media attention and public scrutiny largely focused on the drug, crack cocaine, that was suspected of killing him.

I think our approach to criminal justice is insane and extremely counterproductive. It sharply exacerbates poverty and it may well increase crime. But to suggest that the sentencing disparity is racist suggests a level of unseriousness. The most egregious racism in the criminal justice system is in sentencing. In 2003, Ed Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote found the following:

Among vehicular homicides, drivers who kill women get 59 percent longer sentences. Drivers who kill blacks get 60 percent shorter sentences.

Juries literally value black lives less than nonblack lives, which suggests that criminals who kill blacks actually receive shorter sentences than they’d likely get if they killed whites in similar circumstances.

Think about this carefully and you’ll find that this actually upends the conventional narrative concerning the racism of the criminal justice system.

The real problem is that we throw too many basically nonviolent people in jail. So many, in fact, that we’re destroying families and communities. That’s something we should all be able to agree on. While I actually agree that the sentencing disparity should be narrowed, I find the racism charge counterproductive in the extreme. If Obama is the antidote to polarization, why is he so quick to grasp at this particular polarizing, underinformed notion?