Let’s Face It: The “War on Drugs” Was Never About the Drugs

May 17, 2016
By: Angelica  Walker

This infographic, based on the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows that white Americans are more likely than African Americans to have tried virtually all drugs — including marijuana, cocaine, LSD, opiates, benzodiazepines, quaaludes, inhalants, and meth. Despite this, African Americans are still incredibly more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.

 It’s no secret that the War on Drugs was designed to hurt black communities. In fact, one of the officials that urged Richard Nixon to start this program has even outright admitted that this was the intended purpose:

 “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” – John Ehrlichman, Domestic Policy Chief to Richard Nixon

 Mass incarceration has taken a huge toll on the black community: today, one in nine black children grow up with a parent in prison. These children, who often live below the poverty line, suffer from serious academic, emotional, and social issues. According to a 2013 report by the White House, less than 2% of students with incarcerated mothers graduate from college.

 The War on Drugs has been called “The New Jim Crow” by the ACLU and condemned as one of the largest factors in the perpetuation of institutional racism. Just like the “separate but equal” laws from the early 1900s, mass incarceration is a legal, socially acceptable form of racism in the present-day.

 Although the law may treat minorities as equals on paper, their results are anything but. According to the NAACP, despite being equally likely to consume drugs, African Americans are still being sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white Americans.

 This discrepancy largely stems from bias, whether it be conscious or unconscious, in our nation’s police force and judicial system. In a 2014 Washington Post article, “Being a cop showed me just how racist and violent the police are,” an ex-officer detailed the blatant racism he witnessed on the force:

 “Cops routinely called anyone of color a thug, whether they were the victim or just a bystander… Back at the department, I complained to the sergeant. I wanted to report the misconduct. But my manager squashed the whole thing and told me to get back to work.”

 It’s going to be a long, long time before we can eliminate racism — but what we can do is now is work to eliminate the laws that allow officials to funnel that racism into discriminative arresting practices.

Angelica Walker is an intern for The New People covering LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform. She is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying social work, legal studies, writing, and political science.

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