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Erik Roskes

Our ‘War on Drugs’: Eugenics Without Surgery?

April 17, 2012 04:04:00 am
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By Erik Roskes

In their recent back-to-back columns in Time magazine, Fareed Zakaria and Touré describe two complementary—but far from complimentary—views of contemporary America.

Touré focuses his microscope on the everyday experience of young black men and boys in America, in his poignant but all-too-realistic piece on “eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.” 

As a white man, some of these resonate (when stopped by the police, “follow all instructions, don’t say anything, keep your cool”), while others are utterly outside of my personal experience (“Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you’re doing nothing wrong”). 

Zakaria’s macroscopic view will be very familiar to readers of this blog and of The Crime Report. The United States incarcerates seven to ten times as many people per capita as compared with other developed nations, and, Zakaria writes, “even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242.”

Why do we do this? 

In large part, Zakaria suggests that this relates to our assiduously waged—but long-ago-lost— war on drugs. 

Zakaria cites data showing that half of all inmates are currently incarcerated on drug offenses.  In my experience, more than half of the remainder are also incarcerated on crimes committed in the service of addiction: burglary, robbery, bank robbery, assault, felony murder.  

And these inmates disproportionately come from segments of society that suffer various, often multiple, deprivations: social deprivation, educational deprivation, nutritional deprivation, cultural deprivation, cognitive deprivation. 

Since drug addiction—or at least being caught, prosecuted and convicted for addiction and related crimes—disproportionately affects deprived segments of our society, I submit that our incarceration addiction is tantamount to eugenics without surgery.  

For those with short memories, eugenics was a system of beliefs and practice that asserted that certain societal and racial subgroups were superior to others.

In the U.S., these ideas fostered restrictions on immigration of those believed to be of inferior stock (sound familiar?) and ultimately on the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce. 

Lest we think this is distant history, the organized practice only stopped in the 1970s. Amazingly, as recently as January 2012, an appellate court overturned a court order in Massachusetts that would have resulted in the sterilization of a defendant before the court.

In my view, the selective incarceration of young minority men due to addictions that they often develop in their socioeconomically and culturally deprived worlds removes them from society in part because we view them as the “bogeyman,” and as unfit to be full partners with us. 

This is eugenics in different form. 

Erik Roskes, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a forensic psychiatrist and serves on the teaching faculty in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Roskes’ employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He welcomes readers’ comments.  Dr. Roskes’ website is http://mysite.verizon.net/eroskes.

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