Is Joe Biden risking a reckoning for his work fashioning the War on Drugs?

For 2020, Biden is selling his talent for working across the aisle; among his many "wins" is mass incarceration

Published March 19, 2019 8:30AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Scott Olson)
(Getty/Scott Olson)

This essay first appeared in INSIDERNJ.

Last week former, Vice-President Joe Biden used an appearance  before theInternational Association of Firefighters to stoke media speculation about his entering the 2020 Democratic Primary free for all.  “We’re ready to take anybody on,” he declared to the enthusiastic union crowd which includes hard core Biden boosters.

According to the RealClear Politics poll compendium, which includes Monmouth University’s survey,  Biden leads the field of a dozen announced  Democratic presidential want-to-bes by several points (29 percent). Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker, New Jersey’s favorite son is in fifth place (5.8 percent)  behind  Senators Bernie Sanders (22 percent), Kamala Harris (11.3 percent), and Elizabeth Warren  (7 percent).

Biden is being pitched as ‘the grown-up moderate in the room’ who knows how to get America back to those long gone halcyon days of beltway bi-partisanship and can prevent the Democratic Party from lurching ‘self-destructively too far to the left’.  

Yet, Biden’s name recognition and long tenure in public service that catapulted him to the front of the pack is a two-edged sword. Between his botched Anita Hill hearings he presided over, and his tireless efforts on behalf of the banking and credit card industry,  it is Biden’s baggage which weighs heaviest on his presidential prospects.

And while he may indeed be “ready to take anybody on”, the thing his candidacy might not withstand is a deep reflection on the man he sees in the mirror. For millions he remains that avuncular figure who accompanied a dignified President Obama through eight years. Yet, there were his decades in the U.S. Senate before that where as one of just one hundred individuals he helped shaped the contours of our current circumstance in ways that are not readily apparent. 

In the throes of our current partisan Trumpian dysfunction, its easy to be seduced into falling for the simplistic idea that all we need is the restoration of that by-gone era of Congressional bi-partisan cooperation that Biden invokes as a time of great social progress. It was not.

The last forty years saw the foreclosure on the American Dream that each generation would be more economically secure than the one that preceded it. In the last three years we have seen a decline in the average U.S. life expectancy, the first time we have seen that since World War I.

And while President Obama’s election and re-election creates a Disney-like narrative for the United States and its expiation of its original sin of slavery and racism, that golden era of bi-partisanship produced its own iteration of it. It was rebranded as the American ‘war on drugs.’

Consider the collateral damage done by the bi-partisan effort push in the 1980’s led by the bi-partisan tag team of Senator Strom Thurmond and Senator Joe Biden to criminalize drug abuse under the guise of ‘getting tough on crime’.  

As recounted in a devastating Biden profile by Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s,  the Senators from South Carolina and Delaware crafted the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which, “among other repressive measures, abolished parole for federal prisoners and cut the amount of time by which sentences could be reduced for good behavior. “

Thurmond and Biden followed that up by cheerleading for “the passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its 1988 follow-on, which cumulatively introduced mandatory sentences for drug possession,” recounts Cockburn.

Cockburn reminds his readers that “Biden later took pride in reminding audiences that ‘through the leadership of Senator Thurmond, and myself, and others,’ Congress had passed a law mandating a five-year sentence, with no parole, for anyone caught with a piece of crack cocaine ‘no bigger than [a] quarter.’”

“That is, they created the infamous disparity in penalties between those caught with powder cocaine (white people) and those carrying crack (black people),” writes Cockburn. “Biden also unblushingly cited his and Thurmond’s leading role in enacting laws allowing for the execution of drug dealers convicted of homicide, and expanding the practice of civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement’s plunder of property belonging to people suspected of crimes, even if they are neither charged nor convicted.”

This shift in Federal policy was mirrored at the local and state levels of government with an anti-drug hysteria. New Jersey  saw its prison incarceration rate go from under 100 per 100,000  in the early 1980s, to close to 400 per 100,000 by the late 1990s. It’s now on a downward trajectory, but the socio-economic damage endures to this day.

By 2010, this strategy resulted in the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world with close to 2.4 million mostly men of color incarcerated on local, county, state and federal prisons. Another almost 7 million were tethered to some form of post-prison supervision like parole and probation. 

Subsequent scholarship has documented the devastating consequences of this ‘crime -fighting’ strategy that are of such a scale that it would not be over wrought to describe it as a crime against humanity, one that continues to be perpetrated to this day.

Millions of children of these men of color found themselves socio-economically handicapped, as a massive cohort of grandparents and related elders had to step forward to raise generations of their grandchildren, nieces and nephews, even as the American economy for working people was collapsing. 

As early as 1995, researchers with the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics had flagged the glaring racial component to how the so-called war on drug’s was playing out. According to a DOJ issued white paper  African-Americans made up just 16 percent of the cohort of those selling drugs while they accounted for 49 percent of those arrested. Similarly, when it came to using drugs African-Americans made up only 13 percent of those abusing drugs but were 36 percent  of those arrested for it.

Thanks to the scholarship of  Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book “The New Jim Crow”, we can get a complete picture of just how much generational damage the Biden-Thurmond strategy wrought on African-American men, their families, their neighborhoods and by extension radically altered the course of our entire nation.

In tracking the intra-generational narrative of contemporary African-American men who were ensnared in the criminal justice system because they were addicted to drugs, Alexander documents how the white power structure devised a way to disenfranchise yet another generation of African-Americans on a mammoth scale. 

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote,” Alexander writes. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life.”

She continues, “Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

One of the longest lasting political consequences of this Biden-Thurmond ‘war-on-drugs’, and the similar policy shifts it inspired at the state and local level, is how it distorts the political map of how we apportion Congressional representation.  

African-American communities are hit with a doubly whammy that has had devastating consequences for the entire nation. Under the Constitution , the white rural communities that research shows are where prisons are usually located, get to count the inmates as residents for the purpose of Congressional apportionment and federal aid.

Meanwhile, these imprisoned people of color are banned from voting where they are from, which further dilutes the political power of the mostly urban places they call home.

This has had real historical consequences and helped Republicans prevail electorally in excruciatingly close elections like the Gore vs. Bush contest in 2000 and the 2016 Trump ‘victory’ in which just 70,000 votes in rust belt states made all the difference. 

No doubt, there are a lot of Democrats that want to blame the Russians  for 2016, but after looking at the huge numbers of sidelined African-American voters state by state it seems that the Thurmond-Biden fingerprints are all over it.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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