Our Vision of Criminals and Drug Users

In the United States we have a habit of conflating racial minorities with criminality, drug use, and poverty. When we think about the poor areas of our town, when we think about welfare beneficiaries, and when we think about the people in our jails and prisons we mostly imagine minority individuals and groups. This is not a vision that happened by chance and it is not exactly representative of the populations that live in poverty, have been incarcerated, or use drugs. Our nation built this vision slowly but surely over time starting with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs and rhetoric that established an us versus them mentality in regard to welfare, drug use, and poverty. Very deliberately, the administration and media in the 1980s and 1990s portrayed poor blacks as “them” while suburban whites were cast as the threatened “us”.

Michelle Alexander explains how this started and was fueled in her book The New Jim Crow. She discusses the ways in which incarceration became our answer for drug use, poverty, and growing minority populations. Casting minorities as bad and dangerous people was necessary to build support for greater government control over minority populations. Over time, with continued rhetoric and continued attacks from political elites, race and criminality became entwined so closely that “colorblind” individuals could discuss race and champion policies that would lead to disparate impacts for racial groups without having the appearance of ever discussing race. Alexander shares examples in her book.

She quotes an interview with Jerome Miller, the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, “There are certain code words that allow you to never have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those… so when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” Alexander also quotes Melissa Hickman Barlow from Time and Newsweek in 1989, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” And finally, Alexander cites a journal article from 1995 written by Betty Watson Burston, Dionne Jones, and Pat Robertson-Saunders in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse to describe the way that America had come to see black people and drug use. Alexander writes, “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: ‘Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?’ The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups.”

What the examples above show is that our country views racial groups very differently. Black people in our minds are associated with poverty, drug use, and criminality. White people are associated with success and money. It is important to recognize how we view different racial groups so that we understand the subtext of our politicians, friends, neighbors, and Facebook-ranting relatives when they talk about harsh sentences for drug users or about policies to be tough of crime. What they really mean in these situations, based on our shared vision of who uses drugs and who commits crime, is that they will be tough on black people. We must understand also how these visions shape our implicit biases and how these expectations of different races impact the children growing up in communities across the country. White children grow up learning that black people are poor criminals and that they need to be controlled, and black children grow up learning that they themselves are dangerous, violent, and prone to drug use. This shapes how our children approach the world and find their place in society. In a very real way then, the rhetoric we use and the language we share begins to impact the way people understand their role and identity in society, and shapes the outcomes as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecys.

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