The following guest contribution focusing on the American “war on drugs” was written by Jamal Mtshali, and is an excerpt from his book Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred. More information about the author and his book can be found at the end of this piece.
In America’s War on Drugs, Black Freedom is Enemy Number One
President Richard Nixon’s christening of the “War on Drugs” was no semantic error. It has indeed been a full-scale operation on the level of any of the United States’ greatest military campaigns. Its strategy, which includes the deployment of SWAT units reminiscent of Vietnam platoons and stated missions of freedom and security (not to mention spoils), mirrors that of the U.S. military. It also reports to the same commander—the U.S. government. Waging battles on legislative, judicial, and executive fronts, this drug resistance coalition has demanded nothing less than complete surrender and imprisonment of its opponents. It offers no chance for reformation, no opportunity for remediation, and plenty of room for quarter. But unlike U.S. military conflicts, the Drug War’s enemy combatants are Americans themselves.
Despite the overt declaration of their own government, Americans somehow fail to recognize the Drug War as an actual war. To many, it seems more a noble crusade with the mission of protecting American communities from invasions commanded by Pablo Escobar-like warlords from lands afar who equip shady dealers and hopeless addicts with weapons of mass destruction. That common characterization doesn’t reflect the reality of the Drug War’s policy of fixing its crosshairs not on the major distributors and peddlers of illicit substances—the warlords—but rather the impoverished, destitute, small-operation foot soldiers and civilian addicts, many who are black.
Just as Nixon’s wording was no gaffe, the Drug War’s targeting of African Americans was not happenstance. In its April 2016 issue, Harper’s revealed the 1994 reminiscence of one of Nixon’s chief tacticians, John Ehrlichman:
“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 black, 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. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Fred Hampton, anyone?
In measures of impact, the War on Drugs has been impressive in its ability to one-up the prejudicial political precedents of the past. Even though the United States has a long history of disproportionately imprisoning black men for reasons of bias, the efficacy of Jim Crow policies like black codes pales in comparison to those of the Drug War. In 1980, black men were three times more likely to be enrolled in college than incarcerated. Less than two decades into the Drug War, however, these numbers saw a drastic change with 791,600 black men behind bars compared with only 603,032 enrolled in colleges in the United States. This statistical change is directly related to the advance of the Drug War’s brutal campaigns. But statistics can lie. By itself, the considerable increase in the rate of black male incarceration does not imply the unfairness of Drug War policies. Independent of the tricky context of statistical evidence (which entails the outright admission of one of Dick’s chief commanders), this correlation indicates nothing of the justness or unjustness of this operation. Many surmise that the substantial increase in black incarceration is not attributed to discrimination, but blacks actually distributing, selling, and using drugs at higher rates than those of other races. If that’s true, then the War on Drugs is an impartial and justified campaign.
But is it true?
Research shows it is not. Although African American men have achieved most-everything status on virtually all levels of the judicial and law enforcement systems, from the ankle monitor to the electric chair, research indicating the undue nature of such enforcement would leave many dumbfounded. A 2013 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that among college students, illicit drug use was 25.1 percent for whites compared to 19.7 percent for blacks. Among those 12 or older, illicit use was 9.5 percent for whites compared to 10.5 percent for blacks. In examining the drug proclivities of high school students, surveys conducted by Monitoring the Future found that “African Americans are generally more likely than white students to abstain from substance use, across all grade-levels.” The study further indicated that the racial discrepancy gap regarding drug use was smallest for marijuana, suggesting that African American adolescents who did use drugs were likelier to use marijuana to the exclusion of harder drugs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 “High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey” showed results similarly incongruent with the reality that America’s predominantly black penitentiaries would have us believe. The survey’s data showed that black high school students were less likely than both their white and Hispanic classmates to use cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, and most drugs. Furthermore, it showed that although almost 7 percent of white students had tried cocaine at least once, less than 3 percent of African American students had.
Ancillary but significant to the figures regarding drug use are those concerning weapon possession and violence, two factors people often view as going hand in hand with drug use. Incidentally, many believe that African Americans are more likely to partake in these activities. A 2013 CDC study showed that of students surveyed, white males were more likely than black males to have carried a weapon onto school property, gotten into a physical fight, and carried a gun in the last 30 days. White males were also more likely to have driven drunk. An earlier CDC survey showed whites and blacks to be involved in assaults at similar rates (36 percent for blacks and 32 percent for whites).
One would conclude that if these federal statistics were accurate and America’s justice policy was fair, the demographic makeup of our prisons would reflect them. But American public policy defies logic. African Americans make up a far greater percentage of the U.S. prison population than government statistics suggest they should. Despite the reality reflected by these drug use and behavioral statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans abound in American prisons.
Although 314 African Americans per hundred thousand are arrested for drug offenses, just 175 whites per hundred thousand are arrested for the same offenses. In 2012, 31.2 percent of those arrested in the United States for drug abuse violations were African American. Further bolstering this unsettling fact is that nearly 50 percent of all those detained for drug use are African American—a grossly disproportionate level considering African Americans’ lower levels of abuse. As one study confirms, the tactical aggression of American law enforcement is largely to blame:
Blacks are just 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of the drug users, and despite the fact that traffic stops and similar enforcement yield equal arrest rates for minorities and whites alike, blacks are 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses. Moreover, more frequent stops, and therefore arrests, of minorities will also result in longer average prison terms for minorities because patterns of disproportionate arrests generate more extensive criminal histories for minorities, which in turn influence sentencing outcomes.
Why are African Americans incarcerated for drug offenses at disproportionate rates? Is there a conspiratorial motive? Is it a matter of inconvenient geography, given inner city areas’ closer proximity to police departments? Is the influence of bias so strong as to command the consciences of law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and judges? The answer to each of the above is an equivocal yes. Given John Ehrlichman’s testimony, it’s not a stretch to argue that there looms over the African American community some surreptitious, Hitlerian campaign targeting African Americans for annihilation. But, although America is no stranger to brutally unjust measures of discrimination (e.g., the Tuskegee experiments), absent whistleblowing or similar high-level admission we cannot be sure this applies today. However, that which has been proven proves just as troubling.
Proponents argue that in addition to black criminality warranting these practices, it is more cost-effective for police departments to target black, inner city areas. It should go without saying, but cost-effectiveness should not be among the factors dictating neighborhood policing. As with all government organizations, police departments operate within the confines of budgets—but they are not businesses. To place a price tag on policing at the cost of freedom is contrary to ideals of justice. Even if we take cost-effectiveness to be a legitimate motivation, we still cannot eliminate institutional racism from the equation given that housing discrimination remains a major culprit in African American inner city segregation. That African Americans’ living arrangements are circumscribed to urban ghettos means heavy inner city policing is inherently biased. Additionally, police have other logistical motivations. Police are less inclined to police their own often suburban neighbors and less willing to risk entangling their departments in the legal battles that whites more often can afford to wage. All these facts suggest that the best explanation lies in the pervasive prejudicial attitudes of society from which law enforcement agents and policymakers have no special immunity.
The “criminalblackman” has an enduring legacy in the repertoire of American stereotypes. Long before the dehumanizing archetypes fitted for Asian, Hispanic, and Arab Americans, the idea of black criminality’s intrinsic nature was deeply entrenched in American consciousness. Its image holds America’s consciousness hostage. Harking back to the era of vagrancy laws, the “criminal” label was stamped on the black visage in permanent ink. Thus far, no amount of laser treatment seems able to remove this tarnish from the race’s face. The criminalblackman’s ubiquity is indeed great. Invading feature films, television programs, and nightly newscasts, the black male—for whom crime is more essential than eating, sleeping, or breathing—can be found armed and casting a wide smile for a Corrections Corporation-sponsored photo shoot. He does not go unnoticed. In fact, he makes a strong impression. Statistics have shown that 54 percent of whites see blacks as more likely to participate in criminal activities. When asked to picture a drug abuser, most individuals picture someone black—even though statistics don’t support this presumption. Not even children are spared the influence of the black boogeyman. As one study reports, “Even as children whites view blacks as more aggressive than other whites engaged in the very same behavior.”
Many Americans take no issue with the justice system’s disposition toward blacks, dismissing black accusations of injustice as emblematic of opportunistic “race card” politics. The rhetoric of political pundits, dinner table snarks, and unsightly comment sections all attest to this minimization. Ironically, these individuals themselves symbolize the malignant race bias that has engendered mass incarceration. Bias is a cancer that metastasized throughout the American anatomy long ago. The debilitated limbs of the justice system and failing organs of the citizenry are all harrowing indicators of the advancement of the condition that clouds American sensibility.
Adapted from the chapter “The Injustice System” in Jamal Mtshali’s Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred, published by African American Images and available on Amazon. For more on the author, visit www.JamalMtshali.com. Follow Jamal on Twitter at @jtmtshali.