Venezuelan army helicopters fly over the Sierra de Perija national park, where poppy and marijuana plants are often discovered.
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here again with Josh Scheer and in-studio guest Dr. Troy Duster. We’ve been talking off-air about the relationship between the war on drugs and unemployment in poor and minority communities. Dr. Duster, for the record, why is it critical that we understand the war on drugs as it relates to social progress and perhaps social policy?
Troy Duster: People often get trapped into the immediacy of the drug war. They believe that the police are the bad guys; they’re profiling blacks and Latinos, and that’s the end of the story. So you don’t get a sense of big economic political context to the drug war. You know if you even go back to the Opium War in the middle of the 19th century you can see it was never about opium. It was about power, control, the British, and the Japanese. That’s what it was all about. But in a very similar way, the drug war that we’ve experienced in the last 30 years is to be set in some sort of larger historical context. And that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. As a sociologist, I don’t just talk about drugs. I talk about the context. About 30 years ago, a little bit longer, there was a book written by Sidney Willhelm. The title was provocative. It was called “Who Needs the Negro?” Now, it was a book that people thought was just outrageous. It was actually in the ‘60s that I think it was published. They still called black people Negroes in those years, as you can tell from the title. And here was Willhelm’s thesis: He said, you’re going back to slavery, and you had great need for black labor. It was obvious, that’s what slavery was all about. And then he said, we move into an industrial world, blacks were leaving the South for Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. And that period, World War I breaks out, and you need black labor to either strike-break, for what’s happening with whites who were getting a little bit militant with the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], or, when whites leave and go to WWI and WWII, you got this black labor supply. Then he says that what happens in the postwar era, when whites come back from the wars, you don’t need the Negro anymore for that kind of industrial labor. The work that’s being done in the South in the cotton fields is pretty much mechanized now. And he said “who needs the Negro?”
Harris: Well, I’m going to interrupt for a second. So you’ve got this well-documented case for the unneeded Negro. But how in the world does this tie back into the war on drugs?
Duster: When he said this he then implied that there would be a development in the next 10 to 20 years that would crystallize his idea. He didn’t say what it was going to be, but he said, you watch, there’s going to happen something in this country that going to sharpen this whole issue about the redundancy ... of black employment. And sure enough, in 1954, in the age group 16 to 20, black unemployment is equal to white unemployment. ...
Harris: This is 1954?
Duster: 1954. Thirty years later, black unemployment in this age group is three and a half to four times that of white unemployment. But here are the figures. [In]1954 it’s about 12 percent each unemployment figures. In 1984, in most urban jurisdictions, blacks are about 42 percent unemployed in this age group; whites about 16 percent. Now what happened? How would you explain that industrialization which was not so bad for black people in terms of the employment in the first part of the century? Suddenly with postindustrialization you get this extraordinary rate of black unemployment among youth. And what we learned is that in the tertiary sector of the economy, blacks are not necessarily needed, and this was Willhelm’s point. So what you’re getting when you’re getting into banking, restauranting, and all of those activities that are not either industrial or rural. Employers are making decisions about who they want to be in these shops, selling goods, or who they want in the restaurants, waiting on tables, who they want in hotels, in these service occupations. And there you have systematic discrimination. He said by 1984 what you’re seeing is extraordinarily high rates of black unemployment. Enter the drug war. What happens between 1980 and 2000 is the most massive building of prisons in all of U.S history. In California [in]1982, I was looking at some figures; we were spending more on higher education than on prisons. We had nine campuses on the University of California; we had about 16 state colleges. In the next period, the next 20 years, we built not a single campus, but we built, however ... we went from 11 prisons to 27 prisons. And the incarceration rate skyrockets. Now here’s the part where we get into the issue of race and incarceration. You go back to 1925 and the black rate of incarceration is about twice that of whites. By 1990 it’s eight times the rate of whites. So what’s happening here is this extraordinary acceleration in the incarceration of black people and the single most important factor is the drug war.
Harris: Talking to Dr. Troy Duster, and we’re getting into this issue of the war on drugs as it relates directly to the black community. We’ll talk a bit about racial profiling, but I have a question for you—kind of open this thing up. The statistics are certainly there: Black males who don’t graduate from high school are unemployed almost to a rate to 72 percent. I tell them they have to beat these numbers. What responsibility falls on the actual man or woman who is not employed or who is breaking the law?
Duster: That’s a great question, because as you know, listening to whether it’s Bill Cosby or Juan Williams or increasingly colleagues and friends of mind like Bob Herbert who are on the progressive side of the continuum. What they’re saying more and more is that we have to look at the values and the attitudes orientation of black youth. Yes and no. On the one hand, of course, if I’m speaking to a particular black kid in my office, and I often do, I will tell him that he needs to get his act together and be purposeful and do his homework and all those virtuous things. On a public stage, however, as a matter of public policy, this is not about individuals and their values. We as a nation have a policy. It was developed in 1987 by the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. It was called Operation Pipeline. And the pipeline was to train 27,500 law enforcement people to look on the streets of the United States to find and to profile particular “kinds of people who would be engaged in drug dealing.” Now that’s not individual decision, that’s not individual cop. That’s 27,000 people who are trained by the government; that’s a policy. And the goal from that level down to the individual saying “you need to get your act together” is to make this huge sociopolitical mistake which I think this nation is abundantly capable of—and we do it all the time. So, OK, let’s go back to your question. You get these individuals in your audience, and you’re telling them purposefully and correctly that if they work hard, persevere, stay in school, their chances as individuals of getting a good job are pretty good. On the other hand, if you are talking about the collective, talk about in fact that there are over 35 million black people and unemployment rates are extraordinarily high, now the question changes. What is the country as a whole going to do to increase the employment rate of this part of the population? And my answer is counterintuitive. People are always saying thing likes “you have to look at the market, you have to look at the market.” Well, it’s the market that got us here. Again, in ‘54 you had unemployment rates among blacks are about equal to whites. The market, not individual black youth, spoke and we have a rate of unemployment by 1984 that’s about four times as great. So what we need to do is not look at individuals but at public policy. I think that we could have an extraordinarily successful program of reducing the unemployment rate among blacks and whites if we move to the public sector. Let’s take the example of all the billions of dollars spent into the Iraq black hole. Let’s take about 12 billion of that and revamp the New York and Boston subways. All of a sudden we’d have employment at about 98 percent. Why? Because lots of jobs flow. Let’s take another 12 to 15 billion. You could then put in the homes of most Americans a computer. And you could then have people who were trained, as a public policy issue, to fix computers. Computers break down. I mean, I could go on with this, but the point is you could have a fast rail system between New York, Washington and Boston. It’s a joke you get on the [inaudible]. First of all it breaks down often, but here are the French and here are the Japanese with bullet trains going between Kyoto and Tokyo at extraordinary speeds. Here we are in the United States and we can’t get a planned train from Boston to New York in less than about four and a half hours. And we’re spending all this money in Iraq and that’s a direct function of the political decision-making in Washington. And that’s not to be explained by individuals, in my office, talking about taking drugs.