Too many believe that the election of Barack Obama was a milestone marking the official end of racism in America, and that just isn’t so. While discrimination against black Americans isn’t as blatant as it was 50 years ago, it’s still there, only now more discreet. Historically, America has controlled, limited, and even reduced “the problem” of black America through institutions such as slavery, limitations on suffrage, and lynch mobs. I believe that modern America is no different. Though its current institution is better disguised, it is just as crippling as any before it, and that institution is called the War on Drugs. In at least 15 states across the country, African Americans are incarcerated 20-57 times more often than white Americans, and even though polls have shown that 10 percent of African Americans use drugs as compared to 9 percent in the white population, African Americans still are nine times more likely to serve prison sentences for drug crimes (Lurigio and Loose 225). No matter what your view on this topic, these numbers are real. Not only do they show how the War on Drugs is used as a tool to control and imprison African Americans, but they give us a glimpse behind America’s illusion of liberty and equality.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, growing unrest at home, and the rising Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, President Johnson decided to start preparations for another war: a war against drug-related crime. He took control of drug enforcement and regulations from the Treasury and FDA and created a new agency called the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the predecessor to today’s DEA. Johnson also helped to create the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which was used as a type of “super agency” to help link the federal government and the local police (Parenti 6). Thus Johnson laid the groundwork for Nixon’s War on Drugs.
Enter Richard Nixon: the 37th President of the United States, Johnson’s successor, and the father of the War on Drugs. During the 1968 election Nixon used one of the most powerful stimuli available to politicians: fear. Crime was rampant at this time, and drug use was on the rise. Nixon sought for the first time ever to make criminal justice policy a direct issue of the American president (Parenti 7). In his position paper titled “Toward Freedom from Fear,” Nixon said, “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [Hubert] Humphrey’s war on poverty” (qtd. in Parenti 8). But Nixon’s views on crime were distorted; he blamed the Civil Rights Movement and blacks’ use of civil disobedience for the rise in street crime, saying in U.S. News and World Report that “[t]he deterioration can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that everyday citizens possess an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to obey them” (qtd. in Parenti 7). President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman was even quoted as saying, “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (Alexander, The New Jim Crow 43-44). During a 1971 speech, Nixon took the first steps in creating that system when he infamously stated that drugs were “. . . public enemy number one in the United States,” thus marking the official starting point of the War on Drugs. Nixon then created the Office of Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement (ODALE) whose main responsibility was to target street-level crime in poor urban communities where riots over Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination had occurred. Nixon also did everything in his power to see the passing of his 1968 Crime Bill, which included “preventive detention” or “No Bail” policy and “No Knock” warrants. With these policies, judges could deem suspects ineligible for bail regardless of their constitutional right to be presumed innocent, and police officers could kick down doors without warning despite the Fourth Amendment, which promises protection against unlawful search and seizure (Parenti 10). The Handbook of African American Health reminds us just how detrimental Nixon’s war on drugs was/is to black people:
Ironically only a few years after the signing and implementation of Civil Rights legislation, a document allegedly promising rights and freedoms denied African Americans for over 400 years in this country, the greatest violations against our constitutional democracy took place; at least the greatest violation of democracy against Blacks since slavery…Nixon’s War on Drugs was an attempt to destroy and incarcerate the Black race. (Burris-Kitchen 549)
After Nixon, other presidents carried on the War on Drugs. In the midst of the country’s economic hardships, the Reagan Administration introduced the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which set into place minimum sentencing, took away federal parole, and created a more severe sentencing policy for firearms (Burris-Kitchen 550). Most significantly, the bill allowed the forfeiture of assets which made drug arrests very profitable for police: the gross income from all seizures went up from just about $100 million in 1981 to over $1 billion in 1987 (Parenti 11).
The 1984 Crime Bill was followed by the most staggering blow the War on Drugs had yet to inflict on the black community: the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In the 1980s crack cocaine was the newest drug on the market and because it was easy and cheap to make, it started a revolution in the drug game, particularly in the urban drug market (Conyers, Jr. 381). Legislators at that time believed that crack cocaine was the most harmful drug the world had ever seen, even though they had almost no evidence supporting that idea. As a result, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set mandatory minimum sentencing for drug convictions involving crack, powder cocaine, and heroin, and punished crack cocaine possession 100 times more severely than powder cocaine (Conyers, Jr 381.). Convicted criminals would have to serve a minimum of five years in prison without the possibility of parole for cases involving 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of powder cocaine, or just 5 grams of crack cocaine. The War on Drugs had now turned from targeting sellers to targeting users, namely black users because they were the overwhelming majority who used crack cocaine. Before this law, black people accounted for 23 percent of all those arrested for drug charges even though they accounted for only 12 percent of the population; six years after this law, blacks still only accounted for 12 percent of the population, but their representation among those arrested for drug charges had nearly doubled to more than 40 percent. And since this law has been passed, blacks have accounted for 90 percent of all crack convictions at the federal level (Lurigio and Loose 226-27).
Next, the Clinton Administration passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a bill that put 100,000 more police officers on the streets with newer weapons such as assault rifles, .38 caliber handguns, and grenades (Parenti 63; Burris-Kitchen and Burris 4). Dr. Deborah Burris-Kitchen, a professor of Criminology at Tennessee State University, describes the time immediately following the passage of this bill saying, “Police from New York to Los Angeles were busting down doors to apartments, raiding apartments without warrants, beating innocent people to death, and shooting innocent people who got in the way…The urban streets truly looked like a military occupied zone” (13). In 1995, for the first time in our nation’s history, the prison population reached over 1 million. And by the end of the ’90s, there were over 2 million people in prison or jail; more than half of those were drug-related arrests and over 70 percent of those incarcerated for drugs were African American (Lurigio and Loose 228).
And that, along with everything else that has happened in this nearly 50-year drug war, has brought us to where we are today. In seven states, 80 to 90 percent of imprisoned drug offenders are black (Butler 1048). Additionally, African Americans are given longer sentences, with studies revealing that the average black prisoner serves close to the same time for drug charges—58.7 months—as white prisoners do for violent crimes—61.7 months (Kunjufu 9; Conyers, Jr. 383). This war continues to hold a bleak future for African Americans, with 1 in 3 black male children born in 2001 expected to serve time in prison at some point in their lives (Conyers, Jr. 378).
It’s hard to find any tangible evidence that the War on Drugs is in any way beneficial for the greater good. But I do suppose if the idea of greater good involves the suppression of an entire race, then the War on Drugs may be the single most constructive institution ever created. Otherwise, one of the few cases to be made in favor of this war (and the counterargument to my point) is that it benefits the lives of poor African Americans by taking steps to rid their communities of crime—but at what cost? Michelle Alexander, former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, explains how our current system of mass incarceration, and namely the War on Drugs, has been used as a system to hold the black population at bay in her book, The New Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the name given to a series of anti-black and post-slavery segregation laws that lasted from the 1880s to the 1960s. These laws legalized segregation and created a racial caste system in our country. Felons, Alexander explains, a majority of whom are black, are subjected to the same, and in some cases worse, legal discrimination than a “Black person living ‘free’ in the height of Jim Crow” (10).
Alexander points out that felons are stripped of their right to vote, serve on juries, and are subjected to legal discrimination in employment, education, public benefits and housing, marking them as second-class citizens for the rest of their lives (10). But I would take it one step further: the War on Drugs isn’t some phony substitute for Jim Crow laws. No, the War on Drugs is worse than Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was a case of blatant discrimination of the black minority by the white majority. There was a clear culprit behind the oppression. But the War on Drugs, through its agency of discreet yet utter racism, leaves the black community with no obvious culprit, no clear force to rally against, or to unite in protest. The War on Drugs and the American government snatch away black fathers and mothers living in urban communities and lock them in prison for petty drug offenses, stigmatizing them as “felons.” Add employment discrimination and related problems, and the result is that parents and even children of these broken and poverty-stricken families are pushed toward the view that selling drugs is the only hope for a better life. Due to the high concentration of police patrolling urban communities, gang involvement is necessary to reap the benefits of selling drugs, which in turn leads to non-petty and violent crimes and the black urban culture that so many hastily condemn. So instead of reducing crime, the War on Drugs reinforces drug distribution by leaving previously convicted offenders with few options other than selling drugs again. The truly innocent victims of this cruel institution, the children of the overly incarcerated, grow up in a prison of their own, one enclosed by the limitations set on their felon parents.
Can you imagine reversing the roles of this drug war by subjecting Caucasian Americans to this continuous cycle of criminalization known as the War on Drugs? Targeting middle-class suburban neighborhoods, mass incarcerating white Americans for petty drug offenses, all while basically ignoring the same crime in black communities, and then releasing offenders with the label “felon” and transforming them into second-class citizens for the rest of their lives? So why do we sit idly by when the same institution has tormented the black community for the past 42 years? Do we not live in the same America founded on the exact principles of liberty and equality? Or is it that the principles on which America was founded are the reason this drug war has been allowed to go on relatively unopposed for so long?
Just as our forefathers have done, we must stand up and fight against injustice. The entire nation—the black population especially—needs to take whatever measures necessary, whether they are sit-ins, marches, or picketing on street corners, to once and for all put an end to the War on Drugs. W.E.B. Du Bois said, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery” (qtd. in Burris-Kitchen 536). They are being led back by the same white hand that shook theirs and told them they were free. It’s time we end the march back towards slavery. My closing hope is that this essay can rouse you to action, or at the very least put a crack in your illusion.
Alexander, Michelle. “Cruel and Unequal.” Sojourners Magazine Feb. 2011: 16-19. ProQuest. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
—. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, Jan. 2010. Print.
Burris-Kitchen, Deborah J. “Pathways to Prison.” Handbook of African American Health. Eds. Robert L. Hampton, Thomas P. Gullotta, and Raymond L. Crowel. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010. 536-563. Print.
Burris-Kitchen, Deborah, and Paul Burris. “From Slavery To Prisons: A Historical Delineation Of The Criminalization Of African Americans.” Journal Of Global Intelligence & Policy 4.5 (2011): 1-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Butler, Paul. “One Hundred Years of Race and Crime.” Journal Of Criminal Law & Criminology 100.3 (2010): 1043-1060. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Conyers, Jr., John. “The Incarceration Explosion.” Yale Law & Policy Review 31.2 (2013): 377-387. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Kunjufu, Jawanza. State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males. Chicago: African American Images, 2001. Print.
Lurigio, Arthur J., and Pamela Loose. “The Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans for Drug Offenses: The National and Illinois Perspective.” Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice 6.3 (2008): 223-247. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Nixon, Richard. “Remarks About an Intensified Program for Drug Abuse Prevention and Control.” June 17, 1971. Speech. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Web. March 2014.
Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. New York: Verso, 2000. Print.
Julius Peluola is a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. He wrote this essay for his first composition course, and says, “Being an African American myself, this is an issue that directly affects me, which gave me extra motivation to write an impactful essay.”