Comparing civil rights and anti-drugs efforts

By William Raspberry

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON—”If Washington’s drug problem were centered in the white neighborhoods,” a fellow guest at a dinner party said the other evening, “the powers that be would have cleaned it up a long time ago.”

Others in the group quickly agreed that the reason for the continued existence of open-air drug markets, with their attendant crime and record-setting homicide rates, is that the drug-infested neighborhoods, drug merchants, drug users and drug-related murder victims are black.

It seemed clear to this all-black gathering of middle-class professionals that race is a major factor in the persistence of Washington’s mammoth drug problem.

I agreed, but with this twist: “If the drug traffickers were white, and operating in these self-same black neighborhoods, we would have driven them out a long time ago.”

My point: black Americans find it much easier to do battle against enemies whose faces are white. But when both the victims and the victimizers are black, as is the case in most big-city drug trafficking, the tendency is to start looking for white people to blame.

Mine, needless to say, was not the most popular viewpoint expressed that evening. White people—some of them no doubt respected businessmen—are the ones who let the drugs into the country in the first place, one man said. Ordinary citizens are no match for drug dealers, armed and brutal people who would just as soon shoot you as look at you, said another.

It’s true, of course. But it is also true that respected businessmen were behind the rabble who conspired to deny civil rights to Southern blacks during the 1960s; true, as well, that the Bull Connors and other enforcers of segregation were armed and dangerous people who placed no particular value on black life.

Is it unreasonable to suppose that the black community, under the leadership of local churches, be as effective against the traffic that undermines their neighborhoods as they were against the Jim Crow laws that limited their freedom?

Every neighborhood that is plagued by drugs is also blessed with churches. If a handful of unarmed Muslims could restore the courtyards of Mayfair Mansions, an apartment complex in this city, to the people who live there, a few dozen members of local church congregations, coordinating their efforts on a round-the-clock anti-drug vigil, could put a serious crimp in the drug business here and in other cities.

Would a gang of ruthless drug dealers be frightened by such a showing? Of course not—no more than Southern racists were frightened by the 1960s demonstrators. But the point isn’t to frighten them; it’s to interrupt their business.

Would my proposal end the drug problem? No more than the civil-rights demonstrations ended Jim Crow. The civil-rights victories took the cooperation of the federal authorities, the media, the courts, the congress, the general society. But the demonstrations were the necessary trigger.

Doesn’t putting the burden of the war against drugs on the “little people” serve to absolve the federal government of its role in preventing the importation of drugs into the country? Not at all. The national and international effort against drugs must be continued. But the “kingpins,” who can avoid detecton by operating clandestinely, might be vulnerable to an attack on the street-level retailers.

Look at drug trafficking as a vertical marketing structure. If you put enough pressure on the retail outlets—the neighborhood pushers—the entire chain, from growers and refiners to importers and “kingpin” distributors, will collapse.

I do not doubt that the churches have it in their power to assist mightily in engineering that collapse.

But first it will be necessary for us to get over the notion that we can identify our enemies by the color of their skin. If we can do that, we can reclaim our neighborhoods and begin the crucial task of saving our children.