When we say "the nation," we're not referring to the U.S., which seems precariously balanced on the brink all the time. No, instead we refer to the magazine, The Nation, which was once a powerhouse of ideas and then got complacent and boring and irrelevant.
These days, though, the lefty mag has recovered some of its punch, as Daniel Lazare's "Jailing Nation: How Did Our Prison System Become Such a Nightmare?" demonstrates. Reminding us that the United States is first in the world in incarceration rates, and that black men are horrifically disproportionately represented, Lazare does a bang-up job of asking why that is, and like many writers and scholars before him, he comes back to the drug war.
The reason the police concentrate their efforts in black inner-city neighborhoods, Western notes, is that users congregate there in large numbers, and buying, selling and using tend to take place in public. (It's harder to make arrests behind the closed doors of some suburban McMansion.) If a judge is more inclined to send a poor black defendant to prison, similarly, it is not necessarily because he or she enjoys punishing someone with dark skin but because the judge, according to Western, may "see poor defendants as having fewer prospects and social supports, thus as having less potential for rehabilitation." If your weeping parents can afford to send you to private rehab, you're excused. If not, it's off to the state pen.
Racial and class biases are thus built into the very structure of the drug war.
So what can be done? Well, like many quasi-analyses of its kind -- which relies expressly on written texts rather than new interviews -- Lazare's article offers offers no solutions. It's an excellent summary of the problem, and of some thinking on the problem, but it leaves us merely wringing our hands. Though we're much smarter as we do so.