What could harm African-Americans more than the war on drugs? The drugs themselves.

Yes, a person with a drug conviction will have a tough time finding legitimate work. But a person with a drug addiction will have a tougher time getting and keeping a job. Or raising children. Or becoming politically active.

This isn’t an argument in favor of the drug war. Substance abuse is an illness, which a felony record aggravates. The criminal law has worsened things especially for African-Americans, who are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes at much higher rates than whites.

But there’s a more cynical problem than the war on drugs—a problem that’s been overshadowed by the criticism of the drug war. That’s the role drugs themselves play in preserving an economic system that nourishes poverty and segregation, the very elements that make substance abuse a rational choice for residents of broken neighborhoods.