Updated: Jun 24
by Anisha Srivastava, Head of Editorial, Excuse My Accent
Before beginning this letter I want to emphasize that by virtue of growing up in America and attending the nation’s public schools, we all face a knowledge deficit. We have had very limited exposure to the policies and history that has defined the experience of many marginalized Americans today.
So let’s open our minds and our hearts and dive in.
Since 1971, when the war on drugs began, 1 trillion dollars has been spent to address drug abuse. While the prison population has skyrocketed — America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners — drug abuse remains rampant and uncontrollable. There has been minimal progress but the impact on communities and families of color has been devastating.
Regardless of demographic, recreational drug use is very common. Cocaine has been normalized and is frequently used by young professionals. Drug use at music festivals is rampant. Behind the walls of some college fraternity houses, there is regular abuse of all kinds of illicit drugs.
It is undeniable that people of all ethnicities and all backgrounds use drugs recreationally.
So why are Black people, most significantly Black men, disproportionately serving long sentences for drug-related crimes?
To respond to this question, I will discuss housing discrimination, America’s history of drug criminalization, and the War on Drugs.
I want to frame this whole letter with a clause in the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment declared that it is “unconstitutional to hold a person as a slave.” But here’s the catch: it’s unconstitutional except as a punishment for crime.
Why is that a problem?
The government has full discretion to determine what is a crime, how each specific crime should be dealt with in terms of sentencing, and most importantly, law enforcement can selectively decide where to look for occurrences of crime, who to arrest, who to let off with a warning, and who to completely let off.
Here are some facts about housing: in the 20th century, starting around 1916, African-Americans began to move to urban cities for job opportunities. This shift of the Black community from the rural South to cities is called the “Great Migration.” Starting in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal began rolling out initiatives to help boost home-ownership amongst Americans, but the inner city areas (predominantly Black communities were redlined and systematically denied mortgage opportunities.
In the 1950s, whites left for the suburbs in what is now called “White Flight.” The industries left the inner-cities and the jobs went with them. So by the 1960s you not only had poverty in the Black inner-city communities, you had unemployment with no access to the core economy. I cannot stress this enough. People were crammed together and many had to turn to prohibited activities to pay rent and afford to eat.
Now let’s look into America’s history of drug criminalization.
In the 1800s smoking opium was made illegal in California but opium use in general remained legal in Southern states. It was mainly used by successful whites, commonly by Southern housewives. Smoking opium was mostly associated with the Chinese community at the time. In the South, opium addiction was viewed as a public health issue and met with sympathy. It was not criminalized.
At the turn of the century, cocaine was associated with the Black community and criminalized. In the 1940s marijuana was associated with the Mexican community and criminalized. The common theme behind these changes? Protecting the existing economic order and the jobs of working-class white men.
Some believe this is twisting history and making assumptions about the government’s motives.
In response to this, let’s shift to discuss America’s “tough on crime” attitude. This became a central criterion for getting elected — and staying elected — for both Republicans and Democrats.
In 1971 Nixon declared drug abuse as the “number one public enemy.” What many people don’t know is that the budget allocated for this issue went to treatment programs, not law enforcement and criminalization of drugs. That was progressive and forward-thinking.
But, it cannot be denied that his declaration established a foundation of viewing drugs as something that was an enemy and therefore something associated with crime, requiring force rather than medical attention.
Then, in the 1980s Reagan waged a physical war on drugs. The most significant, absolutely unjust policy was the unfair sentencing of crack cocaine to powder cocaine. The unfair sentencing was 100:1. One hundred to one.
Take a moment to stop and think about what that means.
It means that a person caught with one ounce of crack cocaine gets the same sentence as somebody with one hundred ounces of powder cocaine. This was not changed until Obama was elected but he was only able to reduce the ratio to 18:1.
A common argument is that crack cocaine is more addictive and deserves more severe punishment. But we must consider this largely unknown fact: crack cocaine is made by adding 3 simple things to powder cocaine: baking soda, water, and heat.
Another common argument is that the unfair sentencing was not racial targeting. Let’s investigate this idea.
Here is an indisputable, simple truth: crack cocaine is cheap, powder cocaine is expensive. As you can see from the information above, clearly the Black community was extremely economically disadvantaged. So, with this price differentiation, who is going to buy crack cocaine and who is going to buy powder cocaine?
If there is still an argument against the concept of targeting, then let’s shift the discussion away from intent. Let’s talk about impact.
Can we honestly say that politicians didn’t see the extremely obvious discriminatory impact unfair sentencing had on the Black community? It is a dangerous pattern of anti-drug laws impacting minority and marginalized communities at a far higher level than their white counterparts. We saw this with Chinese immigrants, African-Americans, and working-class Mexicans, as I detailed above.
Then came the 1994 Crime Bill which was proposed by Bill Clinton and largely written by Joe Biden. The bill added 60 capital punishment offenses,100,000 more police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and the absolutely devastating “Three-Strikes Law.” Three violent crimes — a violent crime could be a robbery committed because you could not afford to feed your family — means “you’re out.” A life sentence.
Let’s connect this back to what is going on now.
When it comes to drug-related arrests, there is a lot of money to be made for law enforcement officials. Police officers can get paid overtime for dropping off confiscated drugs, processing the prisoners at central booking, doing paperwork, etc.
With this financial incentive in mind, where do you think police go to look for drug-related crime?
Do they go to predominantly white, affluent suburbs with spaced out, well-landscaped homes? Or do they go to communities with cramped project housing where many young men deal drugs to help pay the family’s rent? Where there is cyclical drug abuse and Black children growing up with incarcerated parents with decade long sentences (a direct impact of the unfair sentencing policy). It is a rational, incentivized choice to target predominantly Black neighborhoods. Race cannot be taken away from the equation.
Finally, in the 1980s and mainly the 1990s, the media began constantly showing young Black men getting arrested for possession of crack cocaine. Did they show rich white bankers and professionals using powder cocaine? Absolutely not. On top of this, Black people, specifically Black men, were labeled “Superpredators” by the media and politicians. The public was being inundated with extremely demeaning, inaccurate stereotyping. Such continuous media portrayal played on the public’s fear, ultimately resulting in literal indoctrination.
With all of the stereotyping and labeling of Black men as “Superpredators,” how can one say that they were not dehumanized by law enforcement? How can one say that they have not been targeted by law enforcement?
If this information is new to you, I encourage you to seek out knowledge about mass incarceration and policing in Black communities.
We must all seek education and awareness so that we can proudly stand on the right side of history.
Let’s move forward in unity.
13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix Studios, 2016. Netflix
The House I Live In. Directed by Eugene Jarecki, Google Play, 2013. Google Play