Editorial: Racism & the War on Drugs
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Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are invested by the United States in an attempt to stop the manufacturing, selling, and use of drugs. While the drug war may seem like a good idea, it has been used as a means of institutionalized, systematic oppression. More than a waste of money, the war on drugs is nothing more than a modern day Jim Crow disguised as a matter of public health and safety. This week, I focus on the U.S. War on Drugs, uncovering the history of racism that shapes one of the government’s top, and most costly, initiatives.
In America, racist attitudes—specifically those directed at African Americans—have been clearly noticeable throughout history. From slavery and Reconstruction in the late 19th century to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were targeted with hatred and forced to endure over a century of violence, segregation and an overall absence of human rights. As the public perception of racism began to change, blatant racism and racist policies were no longer socially acceptable. Racism was forced to become less obvious, resulting in the creation of various forms of institutionalized racism. The system of institutionalized racism that has the most negative effect on African Americans is the United States’ “War on Drugs”.
According to David Musto, “Few US policies have had as disproportionate effects on Blacks…than the ‘war on drugs’, used to reinforce the country’s historically racist attitudes.”[i] Before determining if the War on Drugs is, and has been, fueled by racism, it is necessary to examine statistics pertaining to the drug related arrests for both African Americans and for white people. Also, the history of the Drug War must be reviewed in order to gain an understanding of the past and current relationship between federal drug polices and African Americans. Finally, it is important to explore the various effects the drug war—and the potential racism involved—has on African Americans, paying close attention to the ways stereotypes surrounding African Americans and drugs are upheld and dismantled in today’s society.
Exploring drug crime statistics for African American and white people provides insight into the frequency and severity of drug offenses. Conveniently, the statistics can be used to determine if discrepancies exist between black and white drug crimes in America. A report released by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007 reported that African Americans made up approximately 44.8% of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2005.[ii] This staggering number was nearly twenty percent higher than the white inmate population, which was 28.5%.[iii] Other than showing the striking difference between the black and white populations currently serving time in prison, the report explains that on average each year African Americans account for “38% of drug crime arrests, 59% of drug crime convictions, and 74% of those sent to prison for drug offenses”[iv]. Although African Americans account for just over 1/3 of drug related arrests, they make up almost ¾ of those sent to prison. These statistics support the claim that African Americans are more likely to commit a drug crime and get caught for it, but they can also be used to back up the argument that African Americans are targeted by law enforcement more frequently than white people.
Looking at individual state statistics can highlight the variation between drug offenses for African Americans and whites, providing a more intimate picture of what Bruce Western calls “a racially driven drug war”.[v] In California, for example, African Americans make up less than 7% of the population but “in 2000 made up 62% of the drug related arrests, representing a rate of drug offenses that, since 1990, has grown at 300% the rate of African American population growth within the state”.[vi] When less than 10% of the population is responsible for over half of the state’s drug related offenses, there is reason to investigate claims of racism. Unfortunately, this statistic provides no proof that African American’s have higher arrest rates as a result of racism, because there is still the possibility that African Americans simply commit more drug related crimes. Drugs are illegal, after all.
However, in New York—where marijuana is decriminalized—“African Americans make up 17.3% of the population and are five times as likely as white people to get arrested for a marijuana related offense”.[vii] Again this raises the question: are African Americans being targeted for racial reasons, or are they just committing crimes more frequently? The New York example can be used to argue both sides, but it seems telling when the minority population is arrested more frequently than the majority for a decriminalized offense. This divergence from the expected norm is explained by John Flateau, who claims “in order to circumvent New York’s statewide decriminalization…NYC cops have used extremely unethical techniques to get blacks behind bars, including the use of false statements and intimidation to trick ‘suspects’ into removing the cannabis from his/her pocket in public”.[viii] Despite the usefulness of statistics in demonstrating the drug crime rate discrepancies between African Americans and whites, statistics can always be manipulated to support arguments for both sides, and are therefore unable to completely prove the role of racism in the drug war. History, however, provides more concrete evidence.
Racism has undeniably played a prominent role in American history, and Musto states that the war on drugs is the newest, and currently the worst, form of racism, “perpetuating a social segregation policy that intentionally isolates historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities and communities, ensuring the prevention of a social or economic infrastructure”.[ix] While Musto is correct in claiming the drug war may be the worst current installation of racism in America, he is wrong saying it is the newest.
In fact, Doris Marie Provine argues that the drug war was started because of racism, citing how drugs such as heroine, coke, and marijuana were readily available until the usage of such drugs was connected to minorities, at which point opposition grew almost immediately.[x] A striking example involves cocaine and opiate use around the turn of the 20th century, when “the typical opiate or cocaine addict was a middle aged, rural, middle- or upper-class White woman”.[xi] Despite the prevalence of drug addiction surrounding white people, as the mainstream societal perception of drug use changed, African Americans and other minorities were used as scapegoats for a variety of drug problems, including alcohol. Provine explains how during the Temperance Movement, racism “was obvious and fundamental to the entire [prohibition] effort”[xii], as African Americans were accused of “secretly lusting for white women during bouts of drunken stupors”.[xiii]
The clearest demonstration of racism effecting drug policies –other than the recently amended mandatory minimum sentencing for crack and powder cocaine – involves cannabis, better known as marijuana. Fueled by a propaganda campaign led by Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, “the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act came into law, using racism as its chief selling point”.[xiv] Through blatant lies and ludicrous claims, two outspoken racists were able to impose the creation of a law by exploiting the resentment of African Americans in white America. In the 1920s and 1930s, Anslinger made claims that marijuana “makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”[xv], while Hearst’s papers were printing stories and reporting on marijuana influencing “crazed negroes to rape white women”.[xvi] If this is not evidence enough of the racist history behind marijuana prohibition, Anslinger was even more blatant about it, openly denouncing marijuana for the “crumbling of racial barriers” it caused by bringing African Americans and whites together in jazz clubs.[xvii] This is an early example of somebody ‘talking all that jazz’ about something they don’t know or understand. It is hard to deny the racism surrounding marijuana prohibition when one of the key factors in the criminalization of the plant was the fact that it caused whites and African Americans to sit down, listen to music, and smoke as equals. Through the war on drugs, racism has maintained a prevalent role in American society, demonstrating how racism can be institutionalized, presented as a means of public safety, and accepted by the majority of Americans.
The racist policies of the drug war have resulted in a variety of consequences that impact the lives of African Americans. The effects range from the political realm—1.4 million African American men have lost their right to vote due to felony drug convictions[xviii] – - to the family life—African American children are nine times more likely than a white child to have a parent in prison.[xix] As a result of felony disenfranchisement, African Americans have lost their right to vote at seven times the national average, leaving entire communities politically weakened and powerless to enact change.[xx] In addition to drug policies limiting political capabilities, education and employment opportunities are also effectively cut off from African Americans who have faced the perils of the drug war. The Aid Elimination Penalty, which was added to the Higher Education Act in 1998, “excludes students with drug convictions from receiving federal aid to attend institutions of higher education”.[xxi] Employers are also much less likely to higher an applicant with a felony conviction and time spent in prison.
Overall, the war on drugs creates a system of oppression for drug offenders—who are statistically more likely to be African American—continuously recycling them through the criminal justice system, each time increasing the limitations placed upon them. If one can’t get an education because of financial reasons imposed by the drug war, and one can’t get a job because their application includes a felony drug conviction, crime may be the only possible way to provide for one’s self or family. Poverty can create a need for crime, and the drug war creates poverty by severely limiting the opportunities available to African Americans, the minority with the highest rate of drug related offenses.
The portrayal of African Americans in the media, by blacks and whites, works in a way that adds to as well as dismantles the negative perceptions and stereotypes relating to drugs and African Americans. One of the main contributors to the current “black image” – how black people present themselves and how society expects or perceives them to act – is hip-hop. Rap music is, according to Addiction Research & Theory, “CNN for black teens”. Because rap artists are viewed by many as potential role models, the way a rapper presents drug use can have a significant impact on the outlook of the listener. Whether drug use is glorified or demonized, a rapper has the ability to contribute to an individual’s desire to get involved in the drug lifestyle or the desire to stay way from it.
When today’s popular rappers like Lil Wayne glorify drug use, they paint a false reality where association with drugs leads to sex, parties and fun times that would not be possible sober. Not to mention the lavish lifestyle commonly – and erroneously – connected to selling drugs, which can draw struggling young Americans, black and white, into the world of crime. Drug glorification has been on the rise in rap, with 77% of the top rap songs from 2005 containing positive images of drugs[xxii], which means African American youth today are constantly presented with the idea that the drug lifestyle is the right lifestyle, and a means of escaping poverty. As unfortunate as it sounds, rap music has the potential to draw the youth into the drug war’s system of oppression.
Rap is a two way street though, as not all rap music today glorifies drugs – although the media might lead you to believe differently. Unfortunately, the rap music that presents a more realistic take on drugs is nowhere near as popular as the mainstream rap glorifying the manufacturing, selling and usage of drugs. The fact that music glorifying drugs is more popular than the music providing a realistic view of the world is a major contributing factor to the construction and upholding of the prevailing stereotypes surrounding African Americans and drug use.
Despite drug use being more common among white people, African Americans statistically suffer the consequences of the War on Drugs much more frequently. As a result, they lose opportunities such as education and employment, both of which are necessary if one hopes to create a stable life. The racism that hides behind the War on Drugs has yet to garner the attention the Jim Crow laws did in the 20th century, but it demonstrates the ongoing institutionalized racism of the 21st century. I wanted to use this editorial to discuss the racism behind the drug war, before moving on next week to focus specifically on the relationship between hip-hop and drugs. Being aware of the impact the war on drugs has on African Americans allows for a better understanding of why certain rappers decide to present drugs in a particular way. The relationship between drugs and hip-hop is complex, multi-layered and interesting. Be sure to check back next week!
[i] David Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control (USA: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[ii] “2005 Criminal Offender Statistics,” U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007).
[v] Bruce Western, “Incarceration and Racial Inequality in Men’s Employment,” ILR Review 54 (2000): 7
[vi] Stephen Gutwillig, “The Racism of Marijuana Prohibition,” LA Times, September 7, 2009.
[viii] John Flateau, “The Prison Industrial Complex: Race, Crime and Justice in New York,” Medgar Evers College Press (1996).
[ix] Musto, 15.
[x] Doris Marie Provine, Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[xi] David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 36-39
[xii] Provine, 38.
[xiii] Ibid., 40.
[xiv] David Bienenstock, The Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008), 13-16.
[xv] Electric Emperor, “Reefer Madness Propaganda Through the Ages,” Hempstead Company, http://www.electricemperor.com/eecdrom/HTML/EMP/AA/ECH23.HTM (October 19).
[xvii] James A. Inciardi, The War on Drugs: Heroin, Cocaine, Crime, and Public Policy (Mayfield Publishing Company, 1986).
[xviii] Jamie Fellner, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (Washington: Human Rights Watch, 1998), 8.
[xix] Western, 7.
[xx] Fellner, 8.
[xxi][xxi] SSDP, “Repeal the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Penalty,” Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, http://ssdp.org/campaigns/hea/hea-backgrounder-republican.pdf (October 23).