When Kanye West said George Bush doesn’t care about black people, a lot of people probably thought he had a point.
The former president was under heat for his handling of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. But long before that, some Republicans had earned the reputation from their opposition to the civil rights movement and, more recently, their support for the War on Drugs—the anti-drug push Richard Nixon started in 1971 that continues to put millions of black people behind bars.
But Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is trying to steer his party in a new direction. The potential presidential candidate tackled criminal justice reform in part of his remarks to the Iowa State Republican Convention in June. He’s calling on the party to take a hard look at incarceration disparities and rethink the War on Drugs.
“White kids are doing (drugs), too … but the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them,” Paul told me and some 1,400 other delegates in Des Moines, almost all of us white. “ … If you go to the African American community and ask if you think the law is fair, they’ll tell you no.”
The Kentucky Republican even knocked a policy of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s—setting high hurdles for released felons who want back the right to vote—though Paul didn’t mention the Iowa governor specifically. Branstad ended the Vilsack-era policy of automatic re-enfranchisement after he took office in 2011.
Those are some of the same issues that have gained wide attention in Iowa since last year when the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) released a study showing Iowa has the worst racial disproportionality in marijuana arrests. The widely circulated report from the ACLU said black and white Americans smoke marijuana at similar rates, but data from the FBI and Census Bureau show black Americans are about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for pot. In Iowa, the disparity is reportedly eight-to-one; “devastating numbers,” according to the ACLU of Iowa.
What’s more, 2010 data analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative shows Iowa is one of the worst states in disproportionately incarcerating people of color. While 89 percent of Iowans are white, just 66 percent of the prison population here is white. And while 3 percent of Iowans are black, according to the report about a quarter of those in Iowa’s jails and prisons are black.
It’s stuff that hits close to home for many in Johnson County, where incarceration is racially disproportionate and where these issues have pulled a substantial weight in local politics in the last two years. Voters have narrowly shut down two attempts to fund the construction of a big new Justice Center, Iowa City elected a city council member who called for more attention to disproportionate police contact with minorities and the War on Drugs was the leading theme in the heated Democratic county attorney primary last month.
Paul, called a libertarian-Republican by many, opposes the War on Drugs because it infringes on individual rights, but it looks like he also sees the move as politically expedient. Not only are Republicans faring terribly with voters of color—Mitt Romney reportedly earned support from less than 10 percent of black voters and less than 30 percent of Hispanic voters nationwide—minorities are voting more; 2012 was the first time a higher portion of black Americans than white Americans cast presidential ballots, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Part of our message has to reach out to people where they are. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year going to historically black colleges, to predominantly Hispanic audiences, going to Berkeley,” Paul said.
If the Republicans don’t take the lead on drug reform like Paul would like, it probably won’t be because the Democrats beat them to it. President Barack Obama has made small efforts toward reining in the War on Drugs, but he’s dragged his feet to do so.
During the president’s first term, the federal government cracked down harder on marijuana than during the Bush years, leading the director of the Marijuana Policy Project to call Obama, “the worst president on medical marijuana.” By his second inauguration, Obama’s White House took on a slightly softer tone on pot, saying they wouldn’t halt Washington’s and Colorado’s moves to legalize recreational marijuana, but reserved the right to take over if the states failed to “implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems,” for distributing the non-toxic plant.
But to be clear, Republican politicians have usually been the proponents of the War on Drugs and Paul’s views are still unique in his party. For instance, Iowa’s own U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has harshly criticized Obama’s move not to squelch recreational pot in states that choose that route, calling it “an irresponsible detour from the important fight against illicit drugs.” And at the state level, Democrats like Iowa City’s Sen. Joe Bolkcom have led the push for drug reform.
However, it’s clear many other Republicans are evolving on the drug issue. Branstad, a long-time marijuana opponent, this year signed a very narrow medical cannabis bill. Aj Spiker, the Paul-aligned former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, published a Des Moines Register guest-op calling for marijuana reform. And even conservative southern governors Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry have said they’re open to the idea.
There’s little room for reasonable people to debate whether the War on Drugs and our incarceration culture are good policy, but there’s no sign the so-called establishment Republicans or Democrats are set to take leadership on the issue. A solution will require a cross-partisan coalition, and the United States won’t have a less destructive drug policy as long as reform is mistakenly seen as solely the Democrats’ effort.
Adam B Sullivan is an activist, writer and Iowa City native. He was a delegate to the 2014 Iowa GOP Convention.