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SLAVERY'S LEGACY NEEDS MEANINGFUL HANDLING



Published: Fri, August 31, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Dallas Morning News: Race remains a touchy issue in the United States 136 years after the abolition of slavery. Anyone who doubts that need only observe the Bush administration's frowning reaction to the U.N. conference on racism, which began today in Durban, South Africa.

The administration had been threatening to boycott if slavery reparations and an apology to victims of slavery were on the agenda and if language offensive to Israel remains in drafts of the final declaration. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell already has said that he will not attend, though he has sent lower-level delegates.

The administration is right to discourage reparations, if reparations mean direct payments to individuals. The U.S. government paid reparations to Japanese-Americans whom it interned during World War II. But the last former slaves died at least a generation ago, and the whites who kept them as chattel are all long dead, too.

Bad idea: Deciding how much to pay and who would be eligible would be devilishly difficult. Not all living blacks descended from slaves. Not every great-grandchild of a former slave needs a handout. Even Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica and author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," thinks direct payments is a bad idea.

Yet slavery's legacy persists in the form of poverty and discrimination. The United States should treat that legacy with programs to ensure a better future for slavery's descendants:

It should treat it with scholarships, business loans, development assistance and by acting affirmatively to ensure equal opportunities for Americans of all races and ethnicities.

Its president should not fear to express the deepest regret for what black Americans suffered. It should teach about slavery and racism not to stimulate guilt but to promote awareness. It should pursue the idea of Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., to build an African-American museum in Washington.

The administration is understandably chary of participating in an international conference that would purport to assign responsibility and compensation. It also is rightfully suspicious of Arab countries' efforts to use the conference to bludgeon Israel. However, the Bush administration should check its propensity for snubbing treaties and conferences that it does not like. If it does not attend, it cannot argue its point, much less influence the outcome.

Racism exists throughout the world in Israel's shabby treatment of its Arab minority, in India's abuse of its lower castes and in many other configurations. The problem needs addressing; the administration would be wise to find a way to have a positive voice.

REVISITING DRUG SENTENCES

Los Angeles Times: This nation's harsh drug sentencing laws, now nearly two decades old, are causing low-level first-time offenders to serve ever-longer prison terms. Drug cases now account for one-third of federal criminal court dockets. These findings, from a new Justice Department study, are a familiar, disturbing story. It has gone on for so long because the same lawmakers who regularly decry rising prison costs, crowded court calendars and decades-long sentences for small amounts of drugs are too gutless to change laws imposing mandatory prison terms. A federal circuit court decision earlier this month may finally force the issue.

A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down parts of the 1984 drug sentencing law that allowed judges to increase a defendant's possible sentence, depending on the amount and purity of drugs involved. The appeals court said in the Aug. 9 ruling that determining the actual amount of a drug in a case is the job of the jury, which decides the facts. The bottom line is that if the ruling stands, which is far from certain, thousands of previous federal drug sentences could be overturned because, the court said, the process by which judges arrived at those sentences is unconstitutional. The appeals court decision comes at an interesting moment, with even the new conservative administration expressing some interest in tempering the law.

Rigid sentencing: Federal judges of all political stripes have long disparaged the rigid sentencing in the 1984 law. Federal guidelines and statutes have turned judges into accountants who, once a jury convicts, look up the crime and any enhancing or mitigating factors in pages of tables and calculate the sentence. End of story.

The mandatory minimums are also unfair by another measure. Those convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine draw a mandatory five-year term. It takes only five grams of crack -- cocaine in a different form -- to draw the same minimum term. Lawmakers justified this 100-to-1 disparity by pointing to violence in the crack trade. But the result has been the disproportionate incarceration of African American crack offenders.

The federal Sentencing Commission has over the years recommended softening the law's harsh impact. But for Congress and recent presidents, the perils of appearing to coddle criminals always won over a rational and humane policy. Now even some conservatives, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Asa Hutchinson, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, want to revisit the sentencing issue. The appeals court decision should give them the political cover they apparently need.




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