A Racist Start to the Drug War

My last post was about Harry Anslinger’s racist views and how they influenced public policy. I wanted to focus on what we could learn from his mistakes, and how we could think about our own policy positions given the terrors we have seen in the past from biased policy positions, confirmation bias, and believing things are true simply because we want them to be true.

 

Today’s post is more specifically just an examination of race and drug policy, looking all the way back to the start of the war on drugs. During a time when protests against racial violence in policing is front and center, I think it is helpful to consider how race was specifically used in drug wars to hurt racial minorities, especially black men and women. Black lives matter, but our nation has not always believed that, and we cannot separate the disparities in racial sentencing, death rates, and wealth from the policies of our nation’s past.

 

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johan Hari writes about his shock at finding that the drug war, in its early days, was not so much about mitigating drug addiction or preventing new addiction in teenagers, as it is today, but about controlling racial minorities. He cites overtly racist headlines in newspapers and talks about Anslinger’s efforts to target minority populations, while letting white drug users off the hook and helping them find treatment to wean off drugs. A central character in the book is Billie Holiday, a black musician targeted by Anslinger for her drug use. Her story provides a window into the racialized tactics used to enforce drug laws, and create a nationwide story about the danger of black people using drugs.

 

Hari writes, “Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s – locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believed that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees again.”  The failure of black Americans to become successful was blamed on drugs, and ultimately on a genetic and/or cultural inferiority that justified their low social positions and justified a drug war waged against them. White American’s didn’t want to believe that they could be held responsible for the strife of African Americans, so they invented new excuses for racist policies.

 

As we look around the country today, we should keep these kinds of policies and views in mind. It was not that long ago that we were so openly racist in the development of policies that are still impacting the world today. We can no longer justify racial disparities by saying that there is some type of problem with minorities that justifies the disparities in our policies and outcomes. We need to demonstrate that black lives matter and advance policies that correct the wrongs of our past.

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