01/22/08 - Edwin C. Sanders

"Black America: The Debate Within" panel discussion from New Orleans drug conference featuring Rev. Edwin Sanders, Naomi Long, Prof. James Peterson and Prof. Glenn Loury.

Century of Lies
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Edwin C. Sanders
Drug Policy Alliance
Download: Audio icon COL_012208.mp3


Century of Lies, Jan 22, 2008

The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.


Dean Becker: Hello my friends. Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. We’re going to reach back one month to the major drug policy conference in New Orleans. The following is brought to us by the friends at the Drug Policy Alliance, drugpolicy.org. The name of this session, “Black American: The Debate Within.” African American communities around the country have faced an ongoing public health crisis as it relates to drug use and addiction for decades but the government solution, the War on Drugs, has been an abysmal failure. Many consider the War on Drugs a new form of Jim Crow era racism. Why then hasn’t conservative, middle-class black America taken on this issue as their own modern day civil rights issue? Why haven’t African Americans focused on reclaiming their sons and daughters from the unfair drug sentencing practices that result in overflowing prisons?

The moderator of this panel is the Senior Servant of the Metropolitan Inter-Denominational Church and Coordinator for Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy out of New York, New York, the Reverend Edwin Sanders.


Rev. Sanders: We’re not going to spend a lot of time rehearsing a lot of statistics or give you a lot of analysis of racism and the drug war. There are ways in which I clearly think most of us in this room have a degree of a keen appreciation for the ways in which the numbers and the statistics represent themselves. We’ve heard Ira yesterday make some clear references that were there. We heard Ethanin his presentation do the same thing. I think most of us have learned how to rehearse, we’ve learned to rehearse the ability to speak to a lot of those issues. What we really want to talk about in this plenary session is the dynamics of race and racism within the movement. Alright? We’re getting out the mirror today, alright?


We’re taking out the mirror. We want to look at ourselves. We want to understand why this is the first time-I remember speaking in New Mexico a number of years ago at one of our conferences and it was very easy then to level the indictment of involvement of, especially African Americans and other people of color on the basis of those who were in the room.

Clearly, in this instance we have been able this year to have a much broader spectrum in terms of participation in this conference. But yet, there’s a way in which we know that the dynamics of racism are alive and well and that we have to deal with this in a very forthright and honest manner.

I remember when I came to this movement-I came to this movement by way of the HIV movement. And one of the things I remember as being a part of that experience is that I always tell people that my passion around dealing with issues of HIV and AIDS, I figured it out.

That we figured out how to deal with and address the issues that drive the numbers of HIV and AIDS you’d probably be able to solve all the other problems that represent the cancers in our society that undermine and destroy the great potential that we have as a people, that undermines the ideals and keeps us from realizing the great visions.

So I’m at that same place. I still have that passion and I feel that way about this movement as well. I’m sixty-years-old now, I’ve been through the movement of the 60’s, the movement of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, alright? I have watched the ways in which we have gone forward and never effectively really dealt with issues of racism in the ways in which we should.

And I want to allow us today as a family-let’s just consider ourselves, you know we’re the drug policy family toady and we’re having a family meeting and we’re going to have to have some serious conversation about this issue, about this issue.

I’m reminded of, I was thinking about drugs and where we are in this conversation, the great prophet Richard Pryor. who I always enjoyed just hearing his voice and the things he had to say-but many of you’ve heard the story about how one day Richard Pryor took out his pistol and shot up his Rolls-Royce, you know that story? Took out his pistol and shot up his Rolls-Royce.

And the story goes that he shot up his Rolls-Royce because on this particular day he had had repeated incidents of racial confrontation. He had found himself dealing with managers who were all but disrespectful in the ways in which they were dealing with him. He had been in situations where the color of his skin continued to be the defining factor more than anything else in the ways which he was dealing with his experience in that day.

And the story goes that Richard Pryor went out to his car and he got in the car and, word is, that he was already flying pretty high, that free-basing was the thing of the day and he had found his way to that moment before he got to his car and he got out to his car just totally frustrated.

And the word is, that Richard Pryor said “I can’t take it any longer. I’m going to get away from this madness. I don’t want to hear another white voice today. Especially anybody telling me what to do and how to do it.” And the story is he got in his car and he cut on the ignition and put the car in gear and got ready to drive off, there was one of these cars that had the automatic sensor system in it that would tell you, you know, “put on your seat belt.”


He said if one more white person said anything to him today I’m going to go crazy. And when the thing said “put on your seat belt” he got out of the car and proceeded to--ya’ll didn’t know why he shot up the car, did you, really, but that’s what it’s about.

But I want to suggest to you that that kind of dynamic exists amongst us. Because sometimes we don’t appreciate the dynamics of power, the dynamics of privilege, the dynamics of elitism, the dynamics that translate into us, somehow, still for cultural/systemic reasons, still being caught up in that madness.

And I’m convinced there are days when all of us wake up and probably have moments where we damn near come to point where we shoot up what-ever-it-is that ends up being the object of that kind of frustration. So here we are, here we are. So what I’m going to do right now is, I’m going to sit down and have Naomi stand up and be the moderator and so that I can really talk to you a little while I’m going to become a speaker, alright?

So I’m going to join the panel of speakers. I’m going to ask Naomi, if she will, to stand up and be the moderator as we have this family meeting and talk about the issues of black America and racism within the drug policy movement, within the family, within the family, because I think for us to take the next step we need to take there’s a way in which all of us will have to grow in our ability to be able to deal with this reality and the ways in which it’s manifested itself in our midst. So, Naomi Long.


Naomi Long: How are we doing this work and how is it that the way we do this work makes some of the things that we want to have happen difficult? And what’s going on, what’s going on? When I go talk to folks in DC, my name is Naomi and I work for DPA and I’m in DC, I’m in chocolate city and I’m a chocolate girl and I’m talking about an issue that people don’t necessarily see as a chocolate issue and I’m struggling with it.

So, I want to be sure that I’m able to keep time while we’re talking but, more importantly, I want to be the elephant hunter. I want to be the elephant hunter ‘cause we got a big elephant in the room.

And I want to make sure that we are touching that elephant and moving that elephant and talking about that elephant and that none of us walk out of that room thinking “man, we had an opportunity to do something, we didn’t.” So I’m asking you to hold me accountable. We’re going to try to have at least 30 minutes for question and answer so I’m asking you to hold this panel accountable so we can go deep.

And the last thing I want to ask is, do I look taller to anyone today?


I’m going to try this again. I should. Because on this panel I’m standing on many, many shoulders. And I’m not going to name names but you know who you are, right? Maybe I will name names, Reverend Sanders, Deb Small, Cliff Thorton, Robert Brooks, Lorenzo Jones, Ashid Bendelli and countless, countless others. Countless others.

So we’re building on conversations that started long ago and we’re trying to have a jumping off point for more conversation and for more building and for more work. So I just want to thank and acknowledge that there’s a lot of history here and so, as we are family, we’re going to love and communicate as family. Alright.


So what’s up with this title? Everybody says “what’s up with this title, this panel, the debate within?” Well, there is a debate within communities. Particularly in black communities. But it’s the same debate happening everywhere.

All communities are struggling with drug policy and drug issues and drug addiction and what we do with it. So it’s not a unique debate. So we are going to touch on what are the challenges, within African American communities, talking about and working on drug policy. But as Reverend Sanders talked about, we’re also going to talk about the debate within our drug policy movement, our internal struggles around how we do this work.


Dr. Peterson: I’m Doctor James Peterson, I’m an Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University. But I am also a self-professed scholar of hip-hop culture. I think, if the question is, sort of, why folk from the hip-hop generation or black folk from the hip-hop generation, are not more involved in the drug policy movement, drug policy and drugs in general are part of an interconnected and very complex fabrics of issues and challenges that folks from the hip-hop generation have to contend with.

And I’ll give you a few of those and you’ll see from the lists of these other challenges why maybe drug policy reform ends up being low on the lists of priorities for folk of the hip-hop generation in terms of addressing certain social, political and economic issues.

First, the prison-industrial complex I think, is interconnected with drug policy and the sort of aggressive justice system that we have to wrestle with. But we think of over-incarceration in general as being a larger and more important problem. And, I don’t know, people always make the connection between the over-incarceration of particularly young black men but also more and more young black women.

I don’t know if people always connect that to some of the challenges and some of the issues that drug policy, the Drug Policy Alliance and drug policy reformers are invested in and so there’s an area there for us to make an important partnership. Second, and a little bit more historically, I think if you consider what the crack drug trade did to inner-city communities and you consider the information that has subsequently been revealed about the government’s role in that, I think it’s very, very difficult for folk from the hip-hop generation to think of drug policy reform and some of the issues and some of the things on the agenda for drug policy reform as being more important than the destruction of certain illegal drugs within the communities.

Third and Fourth, and I’ll just try to get through these a little more quickly, I think we also have to understand that gangs and gang related violence, which is again connected to the circulation and sale of illegal drugs, but something that’s seen from the hip-hop generation as a more significant and more primary problem is another one of these issues that I think keep us a little bit separate.

And finally, last but not least, also the proliferation of guns in general. Again, something else tied to drug policy and important in terms of what we think about in terms of the underground economies, but essentially it’s a problem that we see before we see drug reform.

Now, in addition to some of these problems that I think obscure the opportunity for us to make important connections within the African American community around drug policy reform is the generational schism between black folk of the hip-hop generations and black folk from previous generations including the black-power generations and civil rights generations and even before then.

And I think, one thing that I always try to get folk to think about when we think about this, it seems like the music of hip-hop and the culture of hip-hop sort of alienates younger black folk from older black folk. And part of it is misunderstanding on both sides, younger folk not understanding and connected to a certain kind of history and older folk not really listening to and engaging and connecting hip-hop culture in its most substantive ways.

But the bottom line is, and I try to say this as much as possible, there’s a scholar by the name of Monty Perry who talks about the concept of reunion within black culture and just this idea that for any one particular moment within hip-hop certain things can coexist, so we can have the sacred and the profane coexist.

You can have the really grimy dirty stuff and the really clean pretty stuff coexist within hip-hop culture and I think that’s an important message for us as we try to have this honest discussion. There are some generational differences but we do have more things in common than we don’t.

I don’t know if this is an opportunity or a challenge but one of the things that I’ve been wresting with is “does the music of hip-hop culture do anything to shape this discourse?” Does the music of hip-hop culture do anything to shape this discourse, whether that’s positive of negative?

And I think most folk would assume that hip-hop tends to glorify the underground economies of the illegal drug trade, that hip-hop tends to glorify the use of marijuana and other drugs, but one thing I would argue is that for as much as you see in the mainstream media of the glorification of certain things, that if you look closer at hip-hop culture you will see folk pushing back against some of those things and so I think it’s, again, a moment of reunion.

But I do have to concede that there is a sort of a hierarchy of hustling within hip-hop culture that’s tied to the illegal drug trade and I think what’s important to note here is that, that hierarchy exists within the underground economies of drug cartels, I’m thinking about “American Gangster” and the kind of impact this had on the hip-hop generation, not just the BET documentary series which is essentially documenting cats who’ve made a lot of money off of drugs who end up going to jail, right?

But also the film about Frank Lucas and just the role and the kind of impact that had for hip-hop generation youth, a very, very successful gangster film, but also for those of us who kind of stay connected to the streets, is also a film that was bootlegged better than any other film I’ve seen bootlegged in the history of film bootlegging.

And its amazing because it shows us these two kinds of audiences so like lot of folk, you know I got my copy of “American Gangster” in a barbershop about a month before it came out. Don’t tell anybody that! But I did and I think what’s interesting is that the numbers in terms of people paying to go see it are still really, really high.

So it gives you a sense of what I’m talking about in terms of this hierarchy of hustling, like someone who can sort of overcome the social conditions of their existence here in America through the illegal drug trade is considered a hero. And so I wonder what drug policy reform does to that. How does that sort of interact with the discourse that we’re trying to have here today? I think it’s, again, a very very complicated thing.

Obviously Jay-Z has an album by the same name so you can kind of get the sense of how important this hierarchy is, so it exists in the streets and in our inner-cities but also within the music, there is a hierarchy of that hustling which is to say, at the mainstream levels talking about hustling illegal drugs is a very, very popular thing to do and a very very marketable thing to do.

So the sort of confluence of those things I think make this a very very difficult conversation for us to have, but those are some of the reasons that I would like for folk to think about as to why you don’t see more hip-hop generational folk engaged in drug policy reform.


Dean Becker: You are listening to Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network. We’re tuning in to a panel that was held last month in New Orleans at the Drug Policy Alliance conference. The name of the panel, “Black America: The Debate Within.”


Glenn Loury: My name is Glenn Loury. I am not a member of this movement, at least not yet. I’m an Economics Professor at Brown University and so I was annoyed, frankly, when I opened up the program and I read the description of this panel. The debate within the black community as if, you know, the problem is, oh my God, we’re in this movement, you people, we’re doing the Lord’s work, as it were, working for the right stuff, trying to get America right, where are the black people?

I mean, this is devastating to them and they don’t even bother to show up? That’s kind of the tone that I took from this. Now I have to take exception to that, OK? Why would Charles Rangel, let me just say, a member of congress from New York, take positions that he takes before the national political stage on issues like drugs? Positions which we might criticize thinking that its much too punitive, signing on to the crack cocaine distinction, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Charles Rangel has a very difficult problem, I’m talking about a branding problem, I’m talking about an image management problem. If you’re already laboring under the stigma of race you might want to think twice before you take on the stigma of drugs along with the stigma of race if you’re trying to remain viable within the system in order to do what? Get housing for your people, get them fed, get them healthcare and the rest.

In other words, the black leader or politician has a complicated public problem burdened by the stigma of race, to which the stigma of advocating drug reform only makes his problem in some ways worse. I’m not making excuses for him, I’m just saying that he’s got a complicated problem.

I see, sort of, three different things going on here. I see issue of social structure as being very important. This is a very segregated society, OK? I’m not just talking about residential segregation, I’m talking about segregation in the various networks of social affiliation that out of which movements spring.

Go to church on a Sunday. We’re very, very segregated there, OK? It’s no surprise to me therefore that when it comes time to try to build a social movement we find it difficult to all get in the same room and to all get on the same page, because the background social conditions from which we are operating have us living in very separate spheres.

On the other hand, the social values, not the social structure but the social value, I’m making a distinction between how we’re connected with each other and then what principles we ought to affirm. The social values are ecumenical, they’re trans-racial, they’re universal, right?

This is everybody’s problem here. Right? These are Americans first and foremost whom we’re talking about. They may happen, also two thirds of the time they’d be locking somebody up for a drug offense to be African Americans, but the first, the most important, the most fundamental aspect of them is that they are Americans. Let me put it differently. They’re our children. I’m talking about all of us.

Let me put it in another way. They’re members of our community. The relevant community, the political community that makes and enforces the laws, that elects the politicians that raises the taxes, and so forth and so on. That universal perception, that perception that when that kid is dragged away by a cop and thrown in a cell somewhere, it’s our kid and it’s an offense to us and it’s a wrong that’s been done to us, all of us, regardless of our color.


Glenn Loury: That is the fundamental principle that out to take precedence over everything else and we ought to be really careful, out of a matter of convenience, to do things that fly in the face of that principle so I’m real uncomfortable in talking about the black community, about the black community as an agent, as an actor, about the black community as a site of social responsibility, why do they or don’t they do this or that.

Let me give an anecdote to try to convey my disquiet here, and I mean no offense and I’m for what you’re trying to get done here, but I really feel that this is an aspect of it that needs to be underscored. So I turn on “Meet the Press” one Sunday, maybe a month, two months ago, and I see Bill Cosby and Alvin Puissant holding forth, everybody knows what I’m talking about, for an hour with Tim Russert.

Now the last time I saw Tim Russert he had the Secretary of State and he had a long list of very aggressive questions and he was grilling her. And the time before that it was the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Tim Russert was all over him, and then before that it was somebody, whoever it was, who was running for President and Tim Russert had like a dozen gotcha questions.

But for 60 minutes on national television when the entire nation was focused in, all Tim Russert did was grimace and contort his facial expressions out of sympathy for the poor black community that Bill Cosby was in there bemoaning. Come on people, why don’t we get together? And all I could think about was that the relevant people here are the American people.

Come on people, to whom I want to be saying come on, get your acts together, are the American people. In other words, adopt some of those kids who are in foster care. In other words, move into some of those neighborhoods that are racially segregated. In other words, if you want a racially integrated movement you have got to build relationships with people. That’s starts on the ground. You got to get out of your comfort zone.


You got to move from the suburb into the inner-city. Not everybody. Not everybody. I know that’s not everybody’s work but organizing at the grass roots level, building relationships with real people before you start giving them lectures. OK? Seeing things from their point of view, driven by the social value that they’re all our children. They’re all our children.

If America thought that it was our children who are being locked up we’d have a much more therapeutic and a much less punitive response to this problem. It’s because it’s being done to them, people about whom we can say, with our arms folded across our chests, “I don’t get those people.” It’s because it’s being done to them and not to us, because we can displace the subjectivity, because we can move the responsibility elsewhere, I’m not talking about you in this room, I’m talking about the society as a whole, but what I’m saying is that’s the sensibility that you have to fight against.


Dean Becker: Once again, this is the Reverend Edwin Sanders.


Rev. Sanders: I’m going to suggest to you that when we talk about the drug policy movement, the issue of racism for us today is not as easily ferreted out and identified as was in my life at an earlier point. It was very easy just to look at complexion of a person’s skin and at least make the first level of analysis of what you might be dealing with.

But as we have come to a point where the reality of racism has become more systemic and more institutionalized, there are ways in which I’m convinced in order to deal with how that dynamic is impacting our ability to move this, to take this movement forward, has to be brought into the equation and made a part of the picture.

I’m convinced that one of the things that we have to wrestle with is whether or not the very nature, the core strategy, the fundamental basis around which we have built much of our work ends up being a part of the problem. I tell folks all the time now that I’m convinced that it is systems, it is policy, it is process, it is procedure, and in so much of what ends up being the things that are parts of systems, of order, accountability and standard, that for me, end up being the carriers of the systemic racism.

So when we find ourselves committed to a strategy that is built around policy reform and incremental change, whether or not that, in and of itself, might not be a part of the issue in terms of our inability to move things forward. I think there’s a reason why we have chosen to go that route but I think we have to also appreciate the fact that perhaps there are liabilities that come with that.

You see the business of racism is the culture of racism. And when you’re caught up in the culture of racism, which ultimately represents power, elitism and superiority, one of the things that you find is there are points at which the issue of color of skin becomes a dynamic that is not necessarily always the driving factor. Because there’s a way in which interest of individuals it terms of being able to maintain positions of stability and influence and authority and power, be they black or white, ends up being a part of what ends up perpetuating the problem.

So I want to suggest to us today that one of the things we have to do is really appreciate where we marry our issues of activism and our issues of advocacy as well as our issues of systematic policy change and the ways in which those things end up sometimes being difficult for us. I’m convinced for us to have this conversation, that one of the things that we have to do is to appreciate the ways in which all of us end up being a part of the problem on that level.

Let me tell you what brings it home to me all the time as an African American man. I always appreciate it when I go outside of the United States. Because when I’m outside the United States I’m always amazed by the way in which people look at me. It’s not as an African American man but as an American.

And all of the attitudes of power, elitism, superiority that is a part of being in this American culture, which is replete with those institutionalized dynamics that perpetuate the racism, the classism, the sexism, even the social terrorism which we, by the very nature of our experience in interaction with other peoples of the world, end up being perpetuators of.

So for us to deal forthrightly with this I’m convinced we have to reexamine whether or not working through the systems and working through, I mean for instance, I mean I’m one of those folks that has become almost anti-the public policy movement. Because I’m convinced what I see in institutions where public policy is taught is that invariably it’s a process by which you are taught how to be a part of perpetuating.


Rev. Sanders: And if indeed we’re going to continue to call this, you know, this movement won that’s driven by policy then we’re going to have to be the ones to redefine, we’re going to be the ones who have to redirect, we’re going to have to be the ones that put some new understanding to what that means.

Because I think the last thing we want to do is somehow fit into the framework of status-quoism in a way that allows us to somehow miss the point. Being malcontents is an important part of what it takes in order to take this movement forward. And whenever we find ourselves, me included, being compromised in the way in which we advance our strategies because of our desire to make sure we don’t offend and don’t upset and don’t, well, you know, the fact is we’re probably going to have to be willing to confront that in a different way.

And its our challenge as a family to understand what that means and how we do it in a forthright manner. Thank you.


Dean Becker: We hope to have part two of this discussion on a subsequent Century of Lies program. Be sure to tune into this week’s Cultural Baggage when our guest will be Mike Gray who’s produced a new video featuring the words of several ministers in regards to this policy of drug prohibition.

Again, I remind you there is no truth, justice, logic, scientific fact, no medical data, no reason for this drug war to exist. We’ve been duped. The drug lords run both sides of this equation. Please do your part to help end this madness. Prohibido istac evilesco.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Our engineer is Philip Guffy.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net