A Racist Start to the Drug War

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.
Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

To open his book Chasing The Scream, author Johann Hari tells a story about Harry Anslinger and the fragility of civilization. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and sparked the war on drugs in the United States. As a young child, Hari explains, Anslinger was at a farm house where he heard a woman screaming in agony as she possibly experienced drug withdrawals. The owner of the house sent him to the pharmacy to return with a package and drugs to ease the woman’s suffering, which Ansligner did, but the memory of the screams would haunt Ansligner forever, pushing him to spend his entire life fighting against any drugs that he believed were dangerous.

 

In World War I Anslinger became a diplomatic agent in Europe, and he saw the destruction of entire cities and the destruction of human life first hand. At  the end of the war, Anslinger learned another lesson that would stick with him for life. Hari writes, “What shook Harry most of all was the effect of the war not on the buildings but on the people. They seemed to have lost all sense of order.” Ansligner was concerned about riots, starving desperate people driven to chaos, and entire institutions crumbling, leading to strife among the people. Hari continues, “Civilization, he was beginning to conclude, was as fragile as the personality of that farmer’s wife back in Altoona. It could break.”

 

Chasing the Scream is a brutally honest look at drug policy and the war on drugs in the United States. Anslinger was key in kickstarting the war on drugs, but his message was carried on after he left office, and to this day after his death. Hari asks tough questions, trying to understand if there is a way to win a war on drugs and whether we should be more concerned about the consequences we have seen from battling drugs in every arena. At the end, Hari concludes that what we need to fight a war on drugs is not a war mentality, but an understanding of the importance of community, and a rebuilding of social solidarity, trust, and a new sense of our responsibility to each other. Anslinger was right, to conclude that civilization was fragile, but he was wrong is his prescribed treatment. A war to end vice only tears apart our social fabric, weakening the communities which build our civilization.

 

Hari believes that what we need are better ways to understand each other, and more supports for everyone in society. Many of the evils that we attribute to drug use, Hari argues, are in fact byproducts of the war we wage against drugs. In an effort to impose social order on people, with the rhetoric of war and a mindset steeped in racism, Ansligner helped to create a system that broke civilization for some of the most vulnerable among us, just as he always feared from the moments he heard the screams of the farmer’s wife in his childhood.

 

We must remember just how close our civilization can be to chaos and disorder. We need to look for leaders who can bring us together rather than leaders who seek to castigate others and toss them out. We need to think about how we build new institutions that help develop greater sense of community, and how we help those who have the least. If we fail to do so, we will increase inequality, and then blame the inequalities on those who faced the greatest adversity as a result of our inequalities. This will segregate our societies and create more chaos, making it harder for us to come together when we need to, exacerbating our drug and violence problems.
Interconnected Inequalities

Interconnected Inequalities

Inequality isn’t something I have thought of at a truly deep level, but its consequences are becoming more apparent to me the more I learn about the world. I grew up believing that anything was possible for anyone, and that anyone could become president of the United States or successful in their own endeavors as long as they worked hard. While I still do believe that we can all become successful through hard work, and while I do think we should still encourage some form of this myth, I don’t fully believe the myth myself. I think that luck and structural factors of our lives play a huge role, in other words, inequalities matter.

 

In the myth that I grew up believing is that inequality was purely a result of one’s natural skills and how hard one worked. It was an end product, not an input. Many people choose to see the world this way, especially, in my experience, if they themselves are lucky, wealthy, and privileged. Inequality simply doesn’t matter in this worldview, and it is in some ways a good thing, reaffirming that the successful people are smart, hardworking, and deserve what they have.

 

I now think that our interconnected inequalities are much more serious that I had believed. Inequality is visible, and it is understood across the globe. It shapes how people think about themselves, about their futures, about the way other people value them, and about what they can and cannot be. A character introduced in Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic speaks to this reality. A character by the name Enrique opens the book and Quinones writes, “Growing up in a poor Mexican village had attuned Enrique to the world’s unfairness. Those who worked hard and honestly got left behind. Only those with power and money could insist on decent treatment.”

 

From this mindset Enrique chose the only way out of his situation (being the son of a poor sugar cane farmer in Mexico) that he thought could get him money, prestige, and power. He chose to become a heroin dealer. His story is told in the book, and in the opening introduction we see Enrique feel guilty about his life choices, but confirm to himself that it was his only way out of destitute poverty as he watches a group of farm-hands/construction workers be deported in an airport.

 

It is global inequality that drove Enrique to drug trafficking. Through no fault of his own, Enrique was born into a family in a poor village, and the clearest path toward employment for him was pursuing his family’s sugarcane business. A career that meant hard work, near subsistence wages, and little respect. Sure, he could have found other options and become a rags to riches/slumdog millionaire story, but expecting everyone to do so ignores the reality of the message that inequality pushes in the face of those born into such adverse situations. Enrique learned that people didn’t treat him and his family with respect, but saw the respect shown to people in the town with more means.

 

Enrique eventually came to the United States to chase money and status back home in Mexico. The inequality he first saw in his home village never left him. He found inequality everywhere, and the interconnected inequalities between the United States and Mexico in many ways created his lifestyle and enabled his drug dealing.

 

I don’t have a solution to our interconnected inequalities, but I think we need to acknowledge them. I am sure that some level of inequality is inevitable, and likely even healthy, but I’m also convinced that the inequality we see between people and between nations is part of what drives much of our global conflict and grief. So much of the world’s inequality seems completely unnecessary, and in many ways should be addressed head-on, so that people at the bottom don’t believe that the only way to improve their lives is through illicit means, and so that people at the very top don’t use resources in such wanton ways to signal how wealthy and successful they are at the expense of others.

Segregation of Trust and Opportunity

“Very often the United States deals with its problems by sending them away to a different part of the country or a different part of town or, saddest of all, by sending them to jail,” writes Tyler Cowen in The Complacent Class. Cowen addresses our problems of segregation and incarceration in his book and looks at the strange reality in the United States where we have several booming metropolitan economies across the country and regions with high trust, cooperation, and philanthropy, but nevertheless we lead the world in the number of people incarcerated. Cowen sees our incarceration problem and this split between productivity and apparent moral/social failure as a consequence of American complacency in our modern age.

 

He writes, “Alexis de Tocqueville originally visited the United States to study its prison system, noting that [i]n no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. That has not been the case for some time.” We arrest a large number of people, many of whom have had high exposures to lead, have mental illnesses that have not been diagnosed, or have been implicated in implicit bias. Rather than confronting difficult realities and striving to improve society for those of us who are the worst off, there are some senses in which we have chosen to jail those of us who fall short rather than striving toward a better society.

 

“Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhere.”

 

Complacency is taking the challenges and the hard parts of life and society and putting them in a box. We take the people who have failed, those who were not brought along through progress and development (often due to explicit exclusion), and set them aside. We physically locate them in prisons, run away from them to suburbs, or push them out of the downtown spaces we want to revitalize. Rather than working with these individuals and figuring out how we can help them connect with our globalized economy to find a way to be productive and engaged in the world, we shut them out and ignore them.

 

Cowen complains that we have lost a sense of betterment. We don’t believe we can solve big problems anymore, and instead of trying, we burrow into our own niches and push aside those who don’t fit with the narrow vision we want to realize. To get beyond this complacency requires inclusionary thinking that asks big questions about making the world better for everyone as opposed to just making ourselves better. Complacency segregates and ignores while the ambition we need to jump-start productivity acknowledges, innovates, and includes.

On Redistribution

In the United States people hate the idea of redistribution. I was remarking the other day while reading a political science journal article that American culture operates with a background sense that using public policy to improve ones economic fortunes is illegitimate. The only legitimate way, in American culture, to improve ones economic standing is through hard work in the traditional labor market.

 

This is one contributing factor to why redistribution is viewed so negatively in our country. To be seen as deserving, one has to be seen as hardworking, and hardworking and economically successful are tied in the way we think about people in our country. We use a heuristic to tell ourselves that rich people are hard working and that poor people are lazy because it is easier than considering the alternative, and it also confirms to how we want the world to work, at least if we are relatively well off or see ourselves as becoming more financially successful in the future. We want to believe that our good economic standing and future earnings potential reflect our own industriousness and not just a set of favorable circumstances beyond our control.

 

In their book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at our behavior around redistribution and consider how it fits with the framework for local action that they develop. Redistribution is an area where they find an interesting split between the role of federal and local governments.

 

“Major redistributive policies, such as the earned income tax credit, are best pursued at the federal level. Federal redistribution is more effective than more local efforts because the federal government has a larger pool of income from which to draw and there is less capacity to opt out. Federal redistribution is largely people based. State redistribution is generally linked to providing support for public goods in jurisdictions with taxing capacity disadvantages.”

 

I find it really interesting to think that the federal government’s redistribution programs are more people-based than local programs, but I think I understand why that might be. At the local level, we become upset when we see a person in our community who is accepting some form of assistance from the government while simultaneously driving a new car or leaving a nail salon. In some way, when we see an actual person who is benefiting from a redistributive program and using their resources in a way we find inappropriate given what we judge their priorities to be, we feel cheated. We feel that the economic assistance provided to them should have been spent on other local pressing problems rather than on supporting someone who using the financial aid unwisely. This makes local adoption of redistributive programs for individuals more challenging. At a national level, the quote from Katz and Nowak seems to suggest, we likely won’t recall as many of these hyper-local context examples, or just won’t be as aware of the aid, and won’t be as keen to notice the effects of a redistributive policy.

 

Another local level wrinkle that influences the policy appraoches from Katz and Nowak’s quote is that we don’t want to live in a city or region that is known for its slums. Those of us who are affluent enough will likely make efforts to avoid local trailer home regions and find ways around the lower socioeconomic parts of town. We won’t want to acknowledge these regions because they make our entire community look worse, especially from the outside or when commented on by national media. These pressures may make us more willing to have government take action to “clean-up” these economically depressed regions. We see a personal benefit to ourselves in having our city invest more in economically weak regions. We don’t see the same personal benefit from redistributive programs that help other individuals.

Avoiding Race

Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, directly addresses inconsistencies and inequities within our criminal justice system. The prison population in the United States has exploded relative to other countries, and minority racial populations have taken the brunt of our unusually high number of arrests. Alexander focuses throughout her book on the unequal levels of policing in white, black, and brown communities in the United States and the ways in which inequality has lead to policing patterns that favor white people and disadvantage black and brown people. Alexander also looks at the ways in which people with criminal backgrounds are excluded from society, and how exclusion shapes people’s behavior. She describes the ways that this then feeds back into group behaviors and creates a cycle of continually greater policing and arresting. Despite the evidence to demonstrate that our policing is out of control and unfairly targeting minority populations, our country has trouble addressing the reality of our system, and Alexander has ideas as to why.

 

In her book she writes, “The language of caste may well seem foreign or unfamiliar to some. Public discussions about racial caste in America are relatively rare. We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race. We even avoid talking about class.” We believe that today race is not a limiting factor for individuals. White people have an idea in their mind that there are almost no racist individuals in the country. The success of many black and brown individuals in our country demonstrates that we have reached a place beyond racism, where individual effort, not race determines our success. The election of a black president and black sports figures and celebrities is a clear indication to white people that we have reached a post-racial point in society and this allows for the false view that black people bringing up race is the only thing preventing us from leaving race behind. This view however, is drawn entirely upon individuals, and neglects the way that race is shaped by institutions and larger groups. Individually we may have been able to move beyond racism, but as a larger society and within public and private institutions, we have not been able to eliminate disparate impacts for racial groups.

 

Policing and our prison populations demonstrate the way that we have not moved beyond racism within our institutions. Policies related to policing do not direct officers to over-police black and brown neighborhoods and do not instruct officers to arrest black and brown men at rates far higher than they arrest white men, but that is what we see happening when we look at the data describing who is arrested and where our police officers spend their time and effort. We find ways to explain the disparate outcomes that black and brown people face in our criminal justice system that have nothing to do with race, but our explanations avoid any discussion about the racial history that these groups have faced in our country’s history. For years our country allowed racial discrimination in employment, education, and housing, and these policies limited the economic mobility of racial groups while favoring and advantaging white groups. Wealth accumulation was far more challenging for black and brown people, and the effects of such discrimination have not completely gone away. Policing those who we placed in ghettos and policing those who we did not allow to grow economically is not a directly racists decision within our criminal justice system, it is just a side effect.

 

Alexander argues that we should have more discussion about the role that race historically played in our country so that we can better understand our current moment. She argues that we should look at race and at socioeconomic status (SES) as indicators of caste, because race, SES, and caste systems can accurately describe the inequities and realities of our system today. Our discussions avoid race and the idea of caste, but the data the supports the reality of the ideas we hide from.

Hidden Backstories

Last summer I read extensively on race relations in the United States, and Senator Cory Booker’s United was my starting place. One of the things I was struck by in his book is how recently many actively discriminatory policies were in place, and the lingering effect of those policies. I had never experienced or seen outright discrimination or racism in my own life (I am a white male in my 20s, so it is questionable whether I would have recognized it if I had seen it), and I did not think that discrimination still acted as a major force in people’s lives today. Booker’s book along with several others, helped me understand how racial discrimination has persisted in various forms and helped me see how discriminatory practices from the past still impact the lives of people today.

Regarding housing policy in the United States, Booker demonstrates the lingering effect of racial discrimination with the following, “As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, ‘The result, if not the intent, of the public housing program of the United States was to segregate the races, to concentrate the disadvantaged in inner cities, and to reinforce the image of suburbia as a place of refuge [from] the problems of race, crime, and poverty.’”

In the United States today many large cities are gentrifying, meaning that more wealthy individuals are moving back into the cities, increasing diversity, bringing economic and cultural revival to inner cities, and also driving up the housing costs and cost of living in the cities. This is an opposite trend from what Booker explains by quoting Kenneth Jackson, and if we are not careful it could have the same effect of marginalizing poor groups of society which often tend to be majority racial minorities. In the not too distant past housing policies greatly advantaged white people and disadvantaged black and minority people. White families were shown different neighborhoods when looking for homes and received different treatment in suburban neighborhoods. The result was that it was difficult for black people and minorities in our country to move into newer homes in suburban areas, limiting their ability to build wealth through home investments, creating areas of concentrated poverty, and potentially restricting minority populations to environmentally more hazardous areas. Some of these policies were explicit and some implicit, but many still impact the lives of people today.

Restrictive housing in New Orleans as the city grew and developed in the 1900s created a segregated city with white home owners living and moving into neighborhoods on one side of the city which was higher in terms of altitude altitude, while black people and minorities were restricted to another side of the city with lower lying neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the force of the storm tore up both the higher and lower elevation areas of the city, but the flooding was more pronounced and longer lasting in the lower elevation levels where black people had lived for generations. White people whose families for years had lived in the higher elevation part of the city still needed to rebuild, but with less flooding and quicker drainage, did not have to start over from square one. The housing policies of the not too distant past haunted the city in the early 2000s.

For our society today we must recognize these lingering effects and remember the harm that segregation caused whether intentional or not as we decide how we want to live today. I do not have a clear answer to the problems, but we should recognize when our housing policy as a society and living decisions as individuals lead to greater inequity among racial or economic groups. The gentrification today is not based on overt racial discrimination like the housing policies of the 1950s an 60s, but the economic segregation driving the engine of gentrification could still have the same effects of segregating minority populations into substandard housing and disadvantaging them with greater commute times, and restricted access to services and opportunities.