President Obama Narrows Racial Gap in Drug Sentencing

But black crack cocaine sellers and dealers will still be punished more harshly than whites trafficking in powder cocaine.

President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act. (Getty Images)
President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act. (Getty Images)

When he signed into law the bill that reduces the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses, President Barack Obama narrowed the “racial” gap in drug sentencing Tuesday by some 82 percent. Yet he did not close it.

Civil rights leaders that struggled mightily for parity under this unjust federal policy, which filled the prisons overwhelmingly with blacks, are premature in celebrating a total victory. While an improvement, this new legislation now punishes crack cocaine offenders — that cops racially target among black users and sellers in the first instance — by a ratio of 18:1, as compared with those abusing powder cocaine.

On the presidential level, this achievement, as with the health care bill, is another example of Obama surpassing Bill Clinton’s failed efforts, this time in the crucial criminal justice area affecting mainly African Americans. As such, unlike with the health care bill affecting all Americans, the first black president, it was noted, made no public comment during the bill signing.

Savvy political observers understand Obama’s public reticence on such controversial matters, given white denial about racism. However, it allows his critics, black and white, to downplay this breakthrough and continue harping about his alleged lack of sensitivity, especially in the wake of the Shirley Sherrod affair.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed by a Congress that Obama and his attorney general managed at least to tilt toward fair sentencing. The bill revokes a five-year mandatory sentence for first offenders, and instead of 5 grams of crack drawing the same mandatory sentence as 500 grams of powdered cocaine, the new minimum for rock has been set at 28 grams.

The draconian 100:1 ratio of crack to powder has thus been reduced to a less cruel but still unjust bias of 18:1. Once again, the promise of equal justice remains evasive under the peculiar legislative-judicial system that moves like a glacier when it comes to dispensing parity between white and black citizens.