Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Doris Marie Provine's "Unequal Under Law"

Doris Marie Provine is a professor in the School of Justice & Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, currently on leave as a Fulbright Scholar at the Centro de Investigaciones sobre America del Norte.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs, and reported the following:
From p. 99:

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was another agency that refused to accept any softening in its opposition to marijuana, although it did adjust its anti-marijuana propaganda to fit the new user profile. [college kids] Officials now focused on public health as the central problem. The marijuana user would no longer be portrayed as a criminal, but rather as troubled and emotionally unstable, suffering from lack of motivation and alienation. Federal officials began to emphasis what they did not know about marijuana as argument against decriminalization.

My reaction to this passage:

Mind-altering substances – we love them and we fear them, especially in the hands of people whom we do not like or trust. Marijuana started out as a medicine, and was transformed, by the diligent efforts of Harry Anslinger and other public officials, into a fearful drug favored particularly by untrustworthy Mexicans. A problem arose for the drug warriors when college students began to use marijuana – the old exaggerations had to be toned down and re-shaped in line with the new user profile. I trace the unfortunate history of drug criminalization and note the way officials constantly linked drugs to racial groups feared and disliked by middle-class white Americans. Crack cocaine is the poster child for racialized fears about drugs. Penalties for its use far exceed any others, an aberration that can only be blamed on race. The incredible buildup of African Americans in prison for offenses associated with crack cocaine is well known. Less understood is the way race played into the formation of the law. Why has it been so hard to abandon this hard-line approach? Why haven’t the courts intervened? And more fundamentally, why do we insist that drug use be criminalized when most families would do their best to avoid sending a loved one to prison for drug abuse? This book suggests how racial fears insinuate themselves into harsh legislation and why we refuse to talk about it. It also suggests that America can do better, if we take racism seriously.
Read more about Unequal Under Law at the University of Chicago Press website, and learn more about the author and her work at Doris Marie Provine's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue