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.
Racially Motivated Policy

On the Dangers of Racially Motivated Public Policy

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari writes about Harry Anslinger, the Nation’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was a staunch anti-drug crusader, but he also held deeply racist views which came to influence his opinions about drug use and national policy related to specific drugs. In many ways, it was Anslinger’s racist views that created a national prohibition on marijuana, and lead to years of laws prosecuting marijuana use and racially disparate arrests.

 

Early in his career, Anslinger wasn’t very interested in marijuana. He was more focused on heroin and cocaine, but Hari explains that heroin and cocaine use was not wide spread enough in the American population to justify the size of his agency. As newspapers began to report on crime related to black and brown people in the United States who had used marijuana, Anslinger seized on the opportunity to demonize the drug. Hari writes, “almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most-feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were taking the drug much more than white people.”

 

Despite evidence from researchers and physicians indicating that marijuana use generally did not lead to the atrocities that Anslinger began to claim, he pushed forward with harsh drug policies related to marijuana, policies that he knew would have a racially disparate impact. At a certain point, in the picture Hari presents, it appears that Ansligner began to believe what he wanted and see what he wanted in the world around him. After he proved how dangerous the mafia was in the United States, contrary to the view of many experts, he began to believe his own rhetoric about racial inferiority and marijuana dangers. Hari writes, “Anslinger began to believe all his hunches would turn out like this. He only had to defy the experts and keep using his instinct until, finally, he would be shown to be more right than anyone could have predicted.”

 

Anslinger was clearly wrong, and his stance and attitude are easy to denounce today. But what we should learn from his story is just how dangerous public policy can be when it is motivated by racist values and hatred. For many of us today, we believe our values are high minded, and we believe that the policies we favor can have no downside. Nevertheless, we can still learn from the example of Anslinger and the resulting racial problems his policies created in the Untied States.

 

We need to be honest with ourselves and those around us about the values that drive our policy decisions. We should be honest about the potential failure points of the policy we support, and we should acknowledge that there are potential negatives of what we do. This requires that we recognize the message we are trying to push, and avoid simply looking for examples in the world that confirm what we already want to believe. If our values are indeed high-minded, and if we can be open and honest about our motivations, then our policies should be supported by a larger audience. Failing to be honest and open can put us in a place where we defend bad policy, and push for policies that explicitly hurt others, without us acknowledging the downsides. It is also critical that we acknowledge the role that race plays (or has the potential to play) in the policies and attitudes we support. The same reflection and honesty regarding our policies must apply to the racial outcomes of the policies we favor, and we have to push back against policies with disparate negative outcomes for minority groups.
Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

In my last post I wrote about nationwide trends toward Marijuana legalization. I live in Nevada, and marijuana has been legal for the last few years. My last post linked to a biennial financial report prepared by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Fiscal Division. The money states can make is a big driver of the legalization trend, but it is  certainly not the only. A another serious factor, and one I would like to see us talk about more, is fairness and equality under the law – meaning the opportunity to eliminate racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

 

John Hudak, in his book Marijuana: A short History, writes, “According to a comprehensive 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black arrest rates for marijuana possession far outpace white arrest rates, even though marijuana use is about the same between both groups.” Whether intentional or not, this highlights a reality that we are not enforcing laws equally depending on who is committing the crime. Hudak continues, “Despite being 15 percent of the national population, blacks accounted for 58 percent of marijuana arrests in 2010.”

 

I wrote about this after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow (here and here). The reality is that black people are more likely to be in positions where we can enforce certain drug policies, and even thought they are not any more likely to commit violent crimes or use marijuana than white people, they are perceived as more dangerous and are more likely to be arrested for low level drug possession. This creates inequalities and barriers that black people in America have a hard time overcoming, and which are largely invisible for white people.

 

Civil liberty groups, people who have read Michelle Alexander’s book, and even conservative/libertarian activists who want to reduce state spending have begun to advocate for marijuana legalization to begin to reduce these disparities and save state fiscal resources. The push toward legalization is partly an effort to eliminate arrests that are unfair and are now perceived as unnecessary. Many people hope that reducing disparities in drug sentencing laws and legalizing marijuana will help begin to reduce racial inequality in our country. It is a rare issue where we can stop spending so much money on arresting people, so some Republicans are on board with the proposal, while also helping reduce racial disparities, a key driver for many Democrats.

Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.

Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

Care and Concern for Others

I have written about the ways in which colorblindness has been adopted across the nation, but does not actually lead to the outcomes that we would expect. Rather than helping us create better situations for everyone, colorblindness is an excuse that allows for disparate outcomes based on race, as long as we say that our policies and systems were designed to be race neutral. Colorblindness is effectively ignoring the reality of other people and our differences and shutting some people out of our lives.

 

As an alternative to colorblindness, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow proposes the idea of color consciousness. She describes a shift to color consciousness from color blindness in detail. “The shift may, in fact, come as something of a relief, as it moves our collective focus away from a wholly unrealistic goal to one that is within anyone’s reach right now. After all, to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference—a practical impossibility for most of us. The shift also invites a more optimistic view of human capacity. The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”

 

Color consciousness is the idea that we can see race and be aware of our race, other people’s race, and the differences between us and our experiences of the world. When we are colorblind we are not able to accept the disparate outcomes of our policies, and we are encouraged to forget and mitigate the past. Rather than try to understand how our present moment is shaped by past events such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation, colorblindness assumes that we have progressed beyond such evils and live in a society where everything has been fixed, so race no longer matters. Color consciousness instead looks at the past to understand where we are today, and is able to be more thoughtful and considerate when developing new policies and strategies to help the lives of everyone.

What Racial Indifference and Blindness Create

It has become common and popular today to say that you don’t see race and that your actions and behaviors are colorblind. Our politicians, celebrities, friends, and neighbors will all say they are colorblind, trying to convey the idea that they do not act like a racist and that they love all people, regardless of race or skin color.

 

In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that colorblindness and our focus on outward racism is actually what has allowed racial attitudes and racially disparate outcomes to survive in the United States. The type of racism we have to be aware of is not an outward racism perpetuated by individuals, but rather an invisible racism built into our structures, ideologies, and communities. We claim to be colorblind and we tell ourselves and others that we are fair to all races because we have diverse friends, but at the same time we often support policies that impact the lives of black and brown people unequally relative to white people. The New Jim Crow demonstrates the ways in which our colorblind society has not done a good job of preventing racism from influencing our criminal justice system and goes further to show that racism is a consistent factor in the policies and politics that we support.

 

What colorblindness creates is racial indifference. It creates an atmosphere where we assume that if we are not explicitly mean and don’t act in deliberately malicious ways towards others, then those others will be fine and will succeed. Colorblindness does not really mean that we are not racist, but that the concerns, values, and lives of people of color do not matter to us. We cannot see the suffering, the disparate impacts, and the inequalities of society because we are indifferent to the lives of minorities. This is what we are truly saying by calling ourselves colorblind, even if we don’t recognize it.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” Humans evolved in relatively small groups, working, hunting, and growing together, but our world today demands that we work as a single global people. Our minds did not evolve to truly understand and connect with billions or even just millions of people across the globe, and along the way we have developed stories to tell us who we associate with. These made up stories of race, nation, and sports give us a sense of community and help us understand who is part of our tribe. The problem, however, is that these stories are fictions and operating based on our tribal instincts hurts the lives of real people. When we cannot move beyond our tribal nature, we create inequities that create social tension and conflict. In the United States we have chosen to ignore our tribal attitudes and have chosen to believe that indifference to other groups is the same thing as supportive inclusion. Unfortunately, this allows racial biases to operate in the background as we favor our tribe over others and push others down in invisible ways. As Alexander writes in the book, “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”

Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.

 

I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.

 

Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.

Inflated Districts

Michelle Alexander looks at specific policies that have lead to greater incarceration rates in our nation and have exacerbated racial injustice in her book The New Jim Crow. One of the policies Alexander criticizes is the policy surrounding political representation of incarcerated individuals. After Alexander addresses the reality that our nation locks up minority black and brown men at rates far higher than white men, she addresses questions of voting and districting. Below, Alexander explains how incarcerated individuals are counted by the Census Bureau,

“Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60% of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

The presidential election of 2016 showed a powerful split in political preferences between rural and urban parts of the country. Metropolitan areas heavily favored the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, and rural areas overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump from the Republican party. Diving deeper into state politics and representation, we see the same phenomenon play out with state representatives. In my home state of Nevada, the two major population centers, the Las Vegas metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and the Reno MSA, vote democratic while the rural parts of the state vote republican. What the policy that Alexander discusses means is that the MSAs in my state end up loosing seats relative to the rural districts and counties because of the way we count individuals. While Nevada may be dominated by the two million Las Vegas MSA inhabitants and the half million Reno MSA inhabitants, the state likely does see a shift in political representation away from the urban centers toward the rural counties that house the state’s prisons.

It is unlikely that the rural representatives of those prisons favor policies that help improve the neighborhoods and living conditions in the urban communities our prisoners come from. Disturbingly, it is unlikely that our rural representatives favor a reduction in incarceration rates at all since their constituents likely rely on the prison for employment.

It is hard to determine residence and people in prison may be homeless, but nevertheless, we do have the ability today to better analyze and record where our individuals lived prior to being arrested and where they plan to return once released. How we choose count individuals who have short sentences versus life sentences is further in the weeds of the issue, but can be impactful when considering prison populations and the communities that house such prisons. Our nation’s constitution checks urban power by over-representing rural communities in congress, and many state constitutions follow the same suit. Emphasizing this distinction however, and providing greater clout to rural districts that house prisons may encourage a backlash against anti-incarceration movements and may make it less likely that the poor and over policied communities from which our prison population derives, is represented and able to advocate for changes that will improve their lives.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.