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Information for Activists

How to Approach the Black Community

by Clifford A. Schaffer


There have been many people who have rightly criticized the fact that the drug policy reform movement has not made major allies in the black community - despite the fact that the black community is clearly the most severely impacted by the drug war. Instead, the reaction in the black community is often one of even greater calls for law enforcement presence and even greater support for the drug war.

While this is largely true, it is simply a matter that most black people (like most white people) don't realize how we got to where we are today with the drug problem. As soon as it is explained in terms that are relevant and understandable to them, they readily understand and agree with the need for reform - specifically, not putting nearly so many people in prison.

I have always found it relatively easy to get black people, particularly black leaders, to support drug policy reform. They will not support "legalization", but they will support specific steps of reform which both they and the "legalizers" agree are necessary. They already have a problem with too many liquor stores in their communities, so they will not support ideas which look like you are going to open up a legal chain of crack houses. They can be expected to argue for the point that we simply need to stop and look at what we are doing, and seriously question the whole program. They will also support and argue for constructive, rather than destructive approaches to the problem.

Ultimately, many black leaders will tell you privately that they support "legalization", if they are just given the facts as a basis for their view. However, they will still have a significant problem with the public presentation. One church leader told us that his church had once issued a health kit which included various first aid items, educational materials, phone numbers to call, a lot of other things, and a condom. He said there was a storm of controversy about nothing but the condom and they eventually had to take it out of the package because they were spending all their time explaining it and defending it to people, so they couldn't get anything else done. They ultimately figured that it would be better to distribute the same package with everything but the condom. It is sad, but it is a functional reality of the community they live in. It is one task to persuade them of the need for reform. It is another task to help them find ways that they can address the issue with their own community.

How to Find Them, Approach Them, and Win Them Over

  1. Do your homework. Be up to date on the latest stats, issues, and arguments as they relate to the black community.
  2. Look in the phone book for any churches or other social organizations located in, or allied to, the black community.
  3. Call the head of the organization and arrange an appointment. Most of them, particularly churches, will give you one if you just ask.
  4. Be prepared with charts, graphs, statistics, historical information, and reference sources, so you have an interesting and persuasive presentation.
  5. Cover the racial origins of the laws, with appropriate citations and quotes.
  6. Cover the current situation with black men, including the lifetime risk of prison for black men - and how the probability of a drug conviction relates to that total risk.
  7. Don't expect them to trust white people. After the last 200 years, they are justified in being a little suspicious at times. Ask them to trust themselves and check everything you say. Then give them the reference sources to do it.
  8. Don't use the "L" word, the "D" word, or the "M" word. Use the "R" word - Reform - in terms that are specific to the concerns of the black community. Talk about constructive (treatment and education) rather than destructive (prison) approaches to the drug problem.
  9. They know that you (like most of those goody-good white people who come down to meddle in their community) are going to be gone tomorrow and not living with the consequences of whatever takes place in their community. Your arguments must, at all times, be expressed in terms which are meaningful and relevant to them.
  10. Understand their position. They CANNOT be seen as promoting or condoning drug use in any way at all. If you tell them you support the right of everyone to get loaded, you will find yourself in the parking lot in a matter of seconds.
  11. Remember that the Christian belief is very strong in the black community (though they do tend to have a somewhat more vigorous approach to their religion than those stuffy white people). The argument about what Jesus would do - build bigger prisons, or build hospitals and schools - will strike a resonant chord with many of them. Contrast love, compassion, and healing, with punishment, prison, and destruction.
  12. Help them to find a way to talk about it publicly. The issue of the disparity in the sentencing, and the sheer numbers of black men going to prison alone means that we should AT LEAST back up and take an honest look at what we are doing in the drug war. We must build, not destroy. And we must examine the entire drug war, not just the crack laws.
  13. Get them involved in our alliance. Get them connected to the Internet, if possible, (usually not possible), or get them on the mailing lists of the relevant organizations. Find someone from their group who will take the initiative in maintaining and responding to communications.
  14. Tell them about the online library and the fact that it has large amounts of information about the racial roots of the drug war, as well as other information.


I have listed below, a number of the common questions which will come up in such an interview, whether they are explicitly stated or not.

What is their biggest concern?

Their biggest single concern at this point is the ongoing massive destruction of black men. Black men are being rendered "economically dead" by the massive imposition of prison sentences. Their point of view may be somewhat skewed, in that they may view this as a result of the drugs, not the laws, and it may not have occurred to them that, as bad as drugs are, criminal punishment is not the way to address the problem.

Why did this white boy come all the way over here to tell this to me?

Because I am concerned about the drug war for my own reasons, and I have the good sense to recognize that there are other people who would also have concerns, for their own reasons. We will both achieve better results if we work together toward common goals. And, just as a matter of common sense and common decency, I think it is pretty stupid to lock up half of all the black men in America. There has to be a better way.

Why should I trust you?

Don't trust me. Trust yourself. I will simply give you a point of view and the evidence which I think firmly supports it. I think the evidence will shock you, but I don't ask you to believe it. I will give you the reference sources where I got it, and I encourage you to do your own research and let me know of any facts or issues that I have missed. My strongest allies have always come from the people who went to the library and verified what I said.

Why should black people support drug policy reform?

  1. Because the drug problem is tearing up the black community and we need to find a better approach - whatever it may be.
  2. Because the drug laws were based on racism from their inception, so there is no reason to expect them to be balanced and productive laws today.
  3. Because every major study of drug policy said that this policy only caused more harm than good, particularly for poor communities.
  4. Because it is what Jesus would do.
  5. Because we want to rebuild black men and make them productive citizens, not destroy them.

Are you asking me to support legalization?

Not at all. I am asking you to recognize the simple proposition that prison has become a bigger threat to black men than the drugs themselves. Black men can, and do, recover from drug problems and go on to live productive lives. They have a much harder time recovering from a long stretch in prison. We need to discourage drug use but we do not need to destroy their lives in order to save them.

But some of these guys are dangerous and need to be locked up!

I fully admit that there are a good number of black men out there who are dangerous and should be locked up for the good of society. But we have now reached the point where about half of all the young black men in America will have spent at least one stretch in prison before they are thirty. I find it hard to believe that we have to lock up half of all the young black men in America for the good of society. Whenever the numbers get that large, we must stop and ask ourselves if this is really the best course of action.

Don't we need some jails?

Certainly we do. But we learned long ago that, as bad as alcohol is, Prohibition only caused more problems than it solved. In the current situation, we can use our money to put one more black man in prison, or we can use the same amount of money to provide education or treatment to more than one hundred black men. Suppose that someone gave us the decision on where we should spend the next million dollars of tax money on this problem - what should we do? Should we provide education and treatment for up to two hundred people, or should we put two more drug dealers in jail?

How can I speak about this publicly?

  1. Talk about the terrible damage being done by not only the crack laws, but the drug laws in general. The crack laws are the worst example, but they are only one small part of a bigger system that is severely impacting black men.
  2. Talk about the need for education and treatment, not prison. Talk about the need for responses to the problem which build people rather than destroy them.
  3. Talk about the racial roots of the drug laws - how these laws were built on racism from their very inception, and how the image of the Negro Cocaine Fiend in 1914 is repeated in the image of the crack-fiend today.
  4. Talk about the need for an open and honest investigation of this entire drug problem - not just the mandatory minimums for crack. It is the entire drug policy which is wrong and it is the entire drug policy which must be fairly, openly, and honestly investigated.

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