Updated: Oct 1
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 formal exposure to the policies and history that has defined the experience of many marginalized Americans today. So we must commit to educating ourselves.
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 about 5% of the world’s population but nearly 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 many different 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 briefly touch on housing discrimination and the impact of deindustrialization and then discuss America’s history of drug criminalization and the War on Drugs.
I want to frame the whole discussion with a clause in the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment declared that it was 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 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. The result has been laws that unfairly impact people of color, most significantly Black men, and then the geographically and racially selective enforcement of these laws by police officers.
The war on drugs introduced extremely harsh laws for non-violent drug-related crime (such as possession and low-level dealing). For decades, these laws have been enforced “almost exclusively” in low-income communities of color despite the fact that drug use is — as mentioned above — very common in all communities.
Before looking into anti-drug laws and their enforcement, it is important to understand the context of the housing and employment that was available to the Black community when the war on drugs escalated in the 1980s.
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 rolled out a program to help boost home-ownership amongst Americans, but the poorer inner city areas — where the majority of Black people lived — were redlined and systematically denied mortgage opportunities. In the 1950s and 1960s, white families began to leave cities for the suburbs but the majority of the Black community remained in inner cities.
Then, with globalization in the 1980s, manufacturing jobs were largely outsourced to foreign countries. The disappearance of these blue-collar jobs led to high rates of unemployment in the Black community in inner cities; now, on top of the existing poverty in those areas, there was rampant unemployment. With no viable source of income, many people 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, where there was a significant presence of Chinese immigrants, but opium use in general remained legal in Southern states. At the time, smoking opium was widely associated with the Chinese immigrant community. When it was criminalized in California, the Chinese immigrants were targeted in terms of imprisonment.
In the early 1900s, 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. Historically, when a minority, non-white community has started finding jobs in the dominant industries and gaining economic capital, the white community has felt threatened. By criminalizing specific drugs associated with specific communities and arresting members of that community — among other methods — the white community has retained control of the economy.
Some believe this is twisting history and making incorrect assumptions about the government’s motives.
In response to this, let’s shift to discuss America’s “tough on crime” attitude. This became a necessary viewpoint 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 administration allocated more funding for 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 that was associated with crime, requiring force rather than medical attention.
Then, starting in the 1980s, Reagan waged a "physical war" on drugs. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was revised in 1988 introducing a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison for simple possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. The extreme racial injustice of this new law was the unfair sentencing ratio between those caught with crack cocaine, which was mainly used by Black people at the time, vs. those caught with powder cocaine, which was mainly used by white people — mainly wealthier white professionals. The unfair sentencing was at a ratio of 100:1. One hundred to one.
What does this mean?
It means that it would take possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum of 5 years. This was not changed until Obama was elected but it was only reduced to a ratio to 18:1.
A common justification for the ratio is that crack cocaine is more addictive and dangerous and therefore necessitates a more severe punishment. But we must consider that crack cocaine is made by adding 3 simple things to powder cocaine: baking soda, water, and heat. That is the only scientific, chemical difference.
A 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, let’s shift the discussion away from intent. Let’s talk about impact.
Can one honestly say that politicians didn’t see the extremely obvious discriminatory impact of unfair sentencing on the Black community? Huge numbers of Black men were going to prison for very long periods of time for small amounts of crack cocaine while white users — using virtually the exact same drug — were serving sentences a fraction as long. To emphasize the severity — being caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine triggered a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison. To get the same sentence, one would have to be caught with 5000 grams of powder cocaine. And remember that law enforcement selectively searches for drug possession in inner city communities of color.
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 “Three-Strikes Law.” With this law, on an individual’s third violent offense, he/she receives a life sentence. California’s version of this law is infamous for many cases of sentencing non-violent offenders to 25 years to life. In desperate need of reform, California’s law has devastatingly, disproportionately affected the Black community.
Let’s connect all of 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 get paid overtime for dropping off confiscated drugs, processing the prisoners at central booking, for 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 suburbs with spaced out, well-landscaped homes where families can afford to hire lawyers? Or do they go to communities with cramped housing where drug dealing happens directly on the street rather than behind closed doors in spacious homes? For police officers trying to maximize their overtime, it is a rational, incentivized choice to target predominantly Black neighborhoods. Race cannot be taken out of 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, the media began perpetuating this myth that there were excessively violent, lawless groups of young Black men with “no conscience, no empathy” posing a serious threat to society. They were labeled "Superpredators" by the media and politicians. The public was being inundated with extremely demeaning, inaccurate stereotyping. Such continuous media portrayal is ultimately 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.