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Racism in the War on Drugs

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Drug use has occurred throughout history for thousands of years, for both recreational and medicinal purposes. There are even many types of drugs, including marijuana, opium, and tobacco. However, one may wonder how it came to be that some of these drugs became illegal in the United States while others continue to be legally sold every day. By looking at the drug use policies that the U. S. government has put into place throughout the years, one can see that the war on drugs has been motivated by racism and that there is definitely racial discrimination in this country, specifically against African Americans.

Several of the very first drug policies in American history had a basis of racism. The very first drug law in America was passed in San Francisco in 1948, prohibiting the smoking of opium. This law was directed at Chinese immigrants because opium smoking was a “peculiarly Chinese habit” (Block). The thought to ban opium had not occurred until Chinese immigrants came to America. American settlers began to resent Chinese settlers for “taking their jobs” and thus began the rumor that Chinese men were “luring white women to have sex in opium dens” (Block) which caused the anti-opium law. Since the policy was passed in order to suppress an activity done by the Chinese, it undeniably had racist undertones. Another drug prevention policy that was influenced by racial prejudice was the first anti-cocaine law in the early 1900’s. Similarly to the case with the Chinese, cocaine use was associated with African Americans. In that period of time in the South, newspapers began printing articles about “the violence in black people” and claimed that most of the attacks on women in the South were a result of “cocaine filled African Americans,” which led to the outlawing of opium and cocaine in 1914 (Block). These rumors of such violence stemmed from the displeasure that some Southerners felt towards the recently freed African American slaves (Block). With both the example of prohibiting opium because of Chinese and prohibiting cocaine because of African Americans, one can see that racial prejudice has played a part in some of the policies regarding drug use.

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While there have been several laws throughout the years banning the use of certain drugs, the beginning of the actual “war on drugs” was with President Nixon. At a press conference in 1971, Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” identifying drug use as “public enemy number one in the United States. ” In the years to follow, Nixon also created the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). According to Mark Perry, a professor of economics, by doing this, Nixon launched a “failed, costly and inhumane federal war on Americans that continues to today. ” The problem in history that allegedly caused Nixon to declare federal war against drugs was that in the 1960’s, drugs were becoming symbols of “youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent” (Drug Policy Alliance [DPA]). The goal of Nixon’s policies was to stop illegal drug use, but it can be argued that the war on drugs has more racial and political motives.

The war on drugs has had factors that seem to discriminate more against African Americans than any other race. Part of Nixon’s plan to eliminate drug use was creating those federal drug control agencies, but he also created mandatory minimum prison sentencing and no-knock warrants for suspected illegal drug users (DPA). The group of people that has received the most sentencing for drug use and has been targeted the most by drug control agencies are African Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made the shocking comparison that the number of incarcerated African American males in U. S. prisons is the same as the number of enslaved African American men in 1820. The ACLU also reported the statistic that African American men are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white men. Mark Perry even made the point that African Americans are continuing to be arrested at a much higher rate than whites are even though they have lower levels of drug use, and there is no higher demonstrated level of drug trafficking among African Americans than within whites. In addition to being arrested at a higher rate, African Americans are given mandatory sentencing at a higher rate as well. The DPA shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to give a mandatory minimum sentencing to African Americans as whites who are charged with the same offense. The fact that there is evidence showing that African Americans are targeted, arrested, and sentenced for drug use at a much higher rate than whites, despite there being no evidence that whites are more guilty of this crime shows that this may be called a war on African Americans rather than a war on drugs. A quote from Nixon’s counsel and Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, further proves that there is definitely bias against African Americans through this policy:The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but 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. (ACLU)While the alleged intention of the war on drugs was to stop illegal drug use, it has transformed into a reason to arrest more African Americans by associating them with illegal drug use.

The excessive targeting that African Americans are suffering from in the drug war has had huge consequences for the African American community. One of the consequences of these frequent drug arrests is that African Americans are more likely to lose their children. According to the ACLU, African American mothers regularly lose custody of their babies when targeted for drug tests, or if they have a history of drug use. It was even shown that in a South Carolina hospital, “nurses or doctors ordered drug tests exclusively for African American women or for the partners of African American men” (ACLU). Another way the African American family unit is affected by the war on drugs is that many children grow up in single-parent homes if their father is spending years in prison after being arrested for drug use. According to the U. S. Bureau of the Census in 2004, the percentage of children living in a two-parent household went from two-thirds in the 1960’s to one-third in the 1990’s. The decrease began as the war on drugs began, which shows a direct relationship between the two. Another consequence in the African American community as a result of the war on drugs is the hindered opportunity for education. The Higher Education Act of 1998 blocks or delays federal aid for schooling if the person has any sort of drug conviction (ACLU). While unintentional, this policy greatly affects African Americans because they are the ones most likely to be arrested for drug use or possession and therefore are the ones who will likely not get access to federal educational assistance. The war on drugs is also taking a toll on the health of African Americans. HIV and AIDS are the leading causes of death in young African Americans and Latinos, as well as African American women. 77% of AIDS cases reported in the U. S. are from African American women, even though this population only makes up less than a quarter of all U. S. women (ACLU). One of the reasons for this abnormally high number of AIDS in African Americans is from somebody sharing a needle, but U. S. drug policies block funding for clean needles, which contributes to this high amount of disease (ACLU). Again, while these policies were not intended to increase the amount of AIDS and HIV in African Americans, it is nonetheless a consequence. African American employment rates have also been affected by the war on drugs. Similarly to being at a disadvantage for getting federal educational aid, African Americans have a more difficult time finding good jobs with drug conviction backgrounds.

The Economic Policy Institute reported that African Americans had an unemployment rate of 7. 5% in the third quarter of 2017, which was the highest overall in the nation, over double the white population. While there may be several reasons for the high unemployment rate, the high amount of drug arrests seen in African Americans definitely plays a part. All of these different consequences stemmed from the war on drugs, which seemingly was supposed to “clean up the communities” from drug abusers when in fact it has caused more harm.

After researching more in depth about the war on drugs, I agree with Mike Perry that it has been a failure and is incredibly racially motivated. The “goal” was to stop illegal drug use, but what it has done instead is target mostly African Americans for crimes that whites commit just as equally. Drug abuse is still a large problem in the United States, which also shows that the war on drugs has been unsuccessful. Even though there is a direct quote from John Ehrlichman stating that the war on drugs was racially motivated, it is easy to see that it is easier to oppress African Americans as a result of federal drug agencies enforcing the created drug policies. Drugs began to be associated with black people, and now the majority of society believes that African Americans are more likely to be doing illegal activities. Federal agencies targeting African Americans for drug use is a direct example of institutional racism. A government organization is giving negative treatment to a group of people based on their race. Officers today may not personally consider themselves racist, but they actively participate in an institution where targeting African Americans has grown to be the norm as a result of the war on drugs. Even stories on the daily news show more crimes and sentencings of African Americans compared to whites. I believe that it is clear to see that the war on drugs is racially motivated and has not been successful.

In order to tackle this problem of institutional racism against African Americans as a result of the drug war, certain policies should definitely be changed. One of the policies that should be eliminated or lessened is the policy of mandatory minimum prison sentences. It is not necessary to keep piling people in prisons for simple drug possession arrests. African Americans especially should be given a more fair trial. Prison sentencing for drug use should also be lessened. African American men should not be in prison for years and miss out on raising their children. More policies that should be changed are the ones that eliminate people with a history of drug convictions from receiving opportunities like financial aid or getting jobs. Even the opportunity to get loans or housing can be affected by past drug convictions, which is not fair to African Americans who are targeted the most. One solution to this problem that the DPA gives is to offer people with minor drug chargers the opportunity to get treatment or other programming without having to enter a guilty plea. Giving African Americans more equal opportunities to lessen their charges for minor drug convictions is one way to repair race relations that have been strained by the war on drugs. There should be less targeting on African Americans and more focus on other communities as well. The U. S. could also offer more help for people of color who are suffering from AIDS and HIV. Getting help to people who suffer from drug abuse instead of criminalizing them can be a huge step in reconnecting race relations in America.

In conclusion, America has had several drug policies throughout the years that have been racially motivated and especially oppressive of African Americans. When President Nixon announced the beginning of the war on drugs in 1971, it essentially started a war against African Americans. People of color began to be associated with drugs, which became associated with criminals, which led to the large amount of targeting of African American communities by law enforcement. There is evidence that shows how many African American people are filling U. S. prisons and how many African Americans are being arrested compared to whites. This discrimination against African Americans is an example of institutional racism, which can be prevented by giving equal opportunity to people of color as to whites in America.


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