In her pioneering study The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the “Drug War” is just that: a covert system of racial control and oppression comparable to the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century or the Black Codes of the Reconstruction Era. While there has long been abundant evidence that the drug war was tremendously racist not only in its effects but by its very design, the majority of Americans have failed to accept the incredibly disturbing fact that, as Alexander puts it, “something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States.”
Now, however, the racist designs of the Drug War have been confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. A new report by Dan Baum in Harper’s contains a shocking 1994 admission from John Ehrlichman, the domestic policy chief under President Richard Nixon, that the War on Drugs that he orchestrated was little more than a means of stigmatizing and oppressing both the left and African-Americans, both of whom Nixon felt threatened by. As Baum writes:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ehrlichman’s blunt explanation of the War on Drugs can only come as a surprise to those who have been paying little attention. To provide just a brief overview of the War on Drugs: While white and black Americans use and sell drugs at almost identical rates, blacks are almost three times as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges, and their sentences are markedly harsher for the same crimes. Moreover, disparities in sentencing between drugs favored by whites and blacks have institutionalized the racial divide.
Racism and discrimination, both overt and covert, are rampant in police departments throughout America, as is a culture of racial profiling that turns entire communities of blacks and Hispanics into targets. The overbearing presence of a militarized police force in these minority neighborhoods, coupled with frequent raids and random searched, have created what feels like an occupation to many underprivileged Americans.
America’s prison population has boomed to become by far the largest in the world, with almost half of the 2.5 million Americans who are incarcerated serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences have ensured that this population continues to grow and have fed into the growing private prison industry. The War on Drugs has created such an institutionalized racial caste system that fully one in three African-American men can expect to spend time in prison in their life, and the percentage of African-American men between the ages of 18 and 35 who are under criminal supervision in some way (whether incarcerated or on probation or parole) is as high as 50%.
The statistics of racial disparities, cycles of poverty, and devastated lives and communities are atrocious – to say nothing of the War on Drugs’ multi trillion dollar price tag or abject failure to curtail the drug industry. Was all of this merely the unintended consequences of a well-meaning public health campaign, it would be a tragedy. But given that it is in fact, as Ehrlichman admits, only the latest strategy of racial control employed by the American government, it represents nothing less than a crime against humanity.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.