is a level playing field. So, naturally, college admissions
policies should never even take race into account at all.
At least that’s what the Bush administration argued in front
of the Supreme Court last week.
But instead of spending an enormous amount of time and effort
obsessing about African-American candidates to the University
of Michigan receiving special treatment, maybe the White House
should focus on a genuinely pernicious form of affirmative
action: the special treatment blacks get when it comes to
jail admissions. The damning fact is that while blacks make
up 13 percent of drug users, they account for 37 percent of
those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted
and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
Doesn’t sound too much like Bush’s shining ideal of color-blindness
And if you want some harsh narrative to put flesh and blood
to these harsh numbers, take a look at the latest chapter
in the horror story exposed last week in Texas, where a judge
and special prosecutor agreed to throw out every last conviction
stemming from the now-notorious Tulia drug sting.
It was a shameful miscarriage of justice: 46 people, 39 of
them black—roughly 15 percent of the small Panhandle town’s
African-Americans—were rounded up and arrested in the summer
of 1999 solely on the uncorroborated testimony of Tom Coleman,
a white undercover cop with a shady past and a fondness for
racial epithets. Outrageously long prison sentences soon followed,
even for first-time offenders. But despite growing doubts
about Coleman’s credibility and howls of protest from civil-rights
activists, prosecutors stood by their narc—and the Tulia defendants
languished behind bars.
All that changed last week when, following an extraordinary
hearing in which Coleman’s integrity was shredded—with former
coworkers portraying him as dishonest, untrustworthy, and
a racist, and Coleman himself labeling his sworn testimony
“questionable”—presiding Judge Ron Chapman declared: “Tom
Coleman is simply not a credible witness under oath,” and
moved to vacate the convictions. Which, in prosecution-friendly
Texas, is the equivalent of pointing out that not only does
the emperor have no clothes—he’s got a really lousy body.
The sweeping ruling was more than even the most optimistic
of those working to undo the injustice in Tulia had dared
hope for. The hearing was originally called to address the
cases of only four Tulia defendants, but the evidence against
Coleman was so damning that prosecutors agreed to toss out
the convictions and guilty pleas of everyone he had testified
against. In addition, Swisher County, which encompasses Tulia,
agreed to pay $250,000 to the Tulia defendants.
But it’s not time to break out the champagne just yet. This,
after all, is Texas—and the judge’s ruling is not final. It
still has to be approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,
which is not required to accept the recommendation—and which
has a reputation for bending over backwards to uphold convictions.
So we need to keep the media spotlight on the case, and demand
that the higher court affirm the judge’s ruling. In the meantime,
13 people, convicted on the testimony of an utterly discredited
cop, remain locked up, serving sentences of up to 90 years.
It’s also important that we don’t allow the powers that be
to dismiss the Tulia fiasco as an aberration—and dump all
the blame at the feet of a single rogue cop. The system around
this cop allowed him to be the catalyst for the injustice—and
just because he’s discredited doesn’t mean that the system
that allowed him to flourish has changed.
Coleman is merely the symptom of a much bigger disease,” says
Randy Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice,
which was instrumental in bringing Tulia to the public’s attention.
“It’s this country’s out-of-control drug task forces that
are the real cancer.”
Coleman was hired for the Tulia sting by the Panhandle Regional
Narcotics Task Force, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task
forces operating across America with very little oversight
or accountability. “The Panhandle task force,” says Credico,
“was the beneficiary of Coleman’s lies. The more busts he
made and the more convictions he helped win, the more federal
grant money the task force received.”
In this corrupt, bucks-for-busts world, Coleman was a regular
cash cow. So it’s not surprising that his task force handlers
didn’t look too closely at his tainted resume, and stuck by
him until the bitter end. Testifying on Coleman’s behalf,
one of his supervisors, Lt. Michael Amos, claimed that Coleman
had “an exceptional talent at being an undercover officer.”
Hmmm—isn’t that just another way of saying that he was a damn
A quick check of the local papers shows there are many more
cops with “exceptional talent” running amok in task forces
all across Texas, leaving behind a scorched earth of illegal
behavior, large-scale arrests of innocent people, and ruined
There have been so many scandals associated with drug task
forces deep in the heart of Texas that it has prompted a bipartisan
move in the state Legislature to abolish them. The effort
is being led by Republican Rep. Terry Keel, a former prosecutor,
and Jeff Blackburn of the Tulia Legal Defense Project, the
lawyer who spearheaded the Tulia appeals.
When a law-and-order former prosecutor and a crusading civil-rights
defense attorney team up on a hot button issue, you know it’s
an idea whose time has come.
won a battle in Tulia,” said Blackburn, who donated more then
$70,000 of his time to the case. “But the war will be lost
if we can’t change what has become a badly broken system.
Texas became addicted to these task forces early in the game;
maybe we can take the lead in showing other states that it’s
possible to break that addiction.” That would be a nice switch—seeing
the Lone Star State leading the way in something other than
Drug task forces—the rabid attack dogs of America’s drug war—routinely
target African-Americans. Getting rid of them would be the
best kind of affirmative action.