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.
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
). 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.
Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”
The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.
This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.
I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.