It’s no secret that minorities are still being locked up for marijuana-related crimes at a wildly disproportionate rate to white Americans. Even in legalized states like New York and Colorado, we’ve seen alarming arrest statistics. It would be one thing if there were concrete proof that minorities used or sold drugs at a higher rate than their white counterparts, but it’s simply not the case. Though painful to admit, the historically wide gap in arrests is rooted in racism.
This morning, a New York cultural icon took a stand against the injustice. Shawn Carter — you may know him as Jay Z — collaborated with Dream Hampton, the filmmaker and author who co-wrote Jay’s book Decoded, to release this harrowing examination of the United States’ continued drug war missteps. Activist and awe-inspiring artist Molly Crabapple adds striking visual aides to Carter’s narration, illustrating the heinous mistakes of our nation’s elected officials over the past half-century.
The four-minute video tells the tale of thinly-veiled bigotry driving political tactics from the Nixon era to Reagan in the 1980s. Did you know that 31% of our nation’s inmates are African American, though they account for only 13% of our total population? Carter explains how stark differences in sentencing for crack cocaine versus the chemically identical powder variant set entire minority communities up for long-term, systematic failure. Inflated mandatory minimum sentences for crack meant minorities would get locked up for decades on what amounted to petty possession charges.
After the crack epidemic, the video’s focus shifts to cannabis, where a thriving new American economy is growing exponentially. However, the video raises important questions about whether or not we’re moving in the right direction; why are white businessmen about to profit greatly from the same kind of business that resulted in so many minority incarcerations? Look at Maryland, where a legalization effort that should have had a tremendously positive impact on the community is now marred by allegations of a discriminatory licensing process. Hampton was inspired to bring the project to fruition after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2014 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which aimed to put an end to racially-biased policing and law making.
Californians have the ability to create some real positive change with their vote this November, as Proposition 64 represents the most progressive diversity-oriented cannabis legalization effort yet in America. The proposed legislation would not only reduce or eliminate criminal charges for marijuana in California but also retroactively apply the laws to anyone currently incarcerated on low-level offenses. Any prisoners who are sitting in prison for nonviolent possession charges would be set free and have their records expunged. While Prop 64 does have its flaws, like any major legalization effort, it’s tough to argue against a measure that would provide a brighter future as well as rectify past mistakes. If that wasn’t enough, the bill would direct millions of dollars in revenue and investments back into the communities who have been hit hardest by the criminal justice system’s past transgressions.
If you like your Jay Z sermons with slightly more wordplay, you can hear him and Pusha T address some of these topics on “Drug Dealers Anonymous.”
Cover Image Courtesy of Watch the Throne/YouTube
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