U.S. Approach to War on Drugs Ignores Dr. King’s Lessons on Justice, Compassion

August 24, 2011
Guest Post

This post is part of an ACSblog symposium in honor of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National MemorialThe author, Robert Rooks, is the National Criminal Justice Director for the NAACP.


This weekend hundreds of thousands will travel to Washington, D.C. to witness the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial dedication service. Millions more will follow closely via Facebook, Twitter, foursquare and television. Inevitably, those watching this historic moment will ask themselves, have we become the nation Dr. King talked about in his speeches? Are we the promised land? Or do we have a ways to go?

Some will conclude that America has achieved equality because of President Obama, but I would argue the war on drugs shows we have a long way to go. After forty years of the war on drugs, America continues to have laws that stratify society based on race and class and continues to ignore Dr. King’s lessons on justice, compassion and love.

My favorite quote from Dr. King speaks to the heart of the problem with America’s criminal justice system.  "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."

America’s criminal justice system is reckless and discriminate. America has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Blacks are incarcerated at four to five times the rate of whites for drug crimes, even though the majority of those who use and sell drugs are white. The majority of those incarcerated are people who have a history with mental health and substance abuse.

Not only does incarceration impact individuals but it undermines families, communities and civil rights. As Michelle Alexander articulates in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, mass incarceration has created a caste-like system that locks millions of people into the bottom rungs of society based on their status as ex-prisoners. Families of those incarcerated suffer an average 30 percent less income; and in Chicago, 1.46 million black men have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions. Alexander argues correctly in her book by saying, because of mass incarceration and the war on drugs, old forms of discrimination against voting, employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits have become legal again.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for love when implementing justice continues to fall on deaf ears in America as we incarcerate people for nonviolent drug crimes. Yes, people incarcerated for drug crimes have broken the law – and yes, we as a nation still have a responsibility to protect their civil and human rights. In addition, the war on drugs negatively impacts young blacks that have never committed a drug crime by creating a climate where blacks (and Latinos) are disproportionately perceived as culpable (e.g., racial profiling) because of suspicions that are not always substantiated. No research articulates this point better than Devah Pager’s work that shows how unemployed blacks who have never been incarcerated are less likely to obtain employment than unemployed whites who have a history of incarceration.

As we reflect on what Dr. King stood for, we must ask ourselves, what would Dr. King do about the war on drugs? Would he watch the destruction of black families and communities? Of course not!

As long as the war on drugs leads to mass incarceration, racial stratification and the erosion of our civil rights and liberties, we must do as Dr. King would do, fight for its defeat and create a new dialogue rooted in “love implementing the demands justice… and power correcting everything that stands against love.”  At its core, this would mean substance abuse and mental health treatment for all those who need it, not incarceration for nonviolent drug felons.