Blog Post

The Shame Is Not Ours: Black America, Poverty and the War on Drugs

Kirsten West Savali

The so-called war on drugs was created to target black, brown, poor and working-class communities, those communities that have borne the brunt of institutionalized, systemic, white supremacist violence.

John Ehrlichman, chief domestic adviser to President Richard Nixon and Watergate co-conspirator, admitted as much in an interview with Dan Baum that was recounted in a 2016 Harper’s Magazine interview:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war 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 blacks, 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.

Of course they did.

In the wake of that intentional decision, draconian anti-black drug policies have continued to both pathologize and criminalize black communities. Put plainly, these policies first declare that there is something intrinsically sick about black people and as such, law enforcement is given the power to target and occupy black communities, then fill jails and prisons with black people under the guise of making the country a safer place for white folks.

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. — John Ehrlichman

Just last month, Kansas state Rep. Steve Alford had the audacity to state that black people deserved to be incarcerated because there is something genetically flawed about their character.

“What was the reason why they did that?” Alford, a Republican, said as he waxed nostalgically about a Jim Crow policy that outlawed drugs across the country. “One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, was that the African Americans, they were basically users, and they basically responded the worst off to those drugs just because of their character makeup, their genetics and that. And so, basically, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to do a complete reverse with people not remembering what has happened in the past.”

When traces of marijuana were found in the Trayvon Martin’s system—a young man who would have been 23 years old today if he had not been targeted, stalked and shot to death in 2012 by a racist vigilante—many white supremacists claimed that he was a violent thug with weed-induced super strength, instead of a 17-year-old child trying to get back home to his family.

Once again, the war on drugs provided flimsy cover for racism, as it so often does—as it was intended to do.

From the Rockefeller drug laws (pdf) enacted in the ’70s, to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which would serve as the foundation of President Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986—which allotted $1.7 billion to more deeply criminalize drug sellers and allegedly combat drug use—the war has always been a storefront operation created for the sole purpose of laundering the institutional, systemic and coordinated assaults on black and brown communities in this country.

As reported previously on The Root, in 1993, after Washington state passed the first “three strikes” law and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (aka the crime bill) was introduced, television coverage of crime more than doubled from 1992. Nixon’s legacy continued.

President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, authored by former Vice President Joe Biden, passed in 1994 with the promise of more police and prisons, but not before it was stripped of the Racial Justice Act, which would have allowed death row inmates to use data showing racial inequities in sentencing. The bill was also stripped of $3.3 billion—two-thirds of it from prevention programs. A provision that would have made 16,000 low-level drug offenders eligible for early release was also removed.

Three-strikes laws were being created at the state level around the country, with states being awarded Truth in Sentencing grants to build and expand prisons. And thanks to Clinton’s 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, deep poverty was on the rise (pdf).

Poverty, police and prisons—for too many black, brown and indigenous communities, where you find one, you find the others.

As scholar Sam Roberts pointed out last year in The Root’s Black History Month series in partnership with Drug Policy Alliance, the blurred line between drug dealing and problematic drug use for low-level offenders sharpens into focus when the “offender” is black and poor.

“So much of it is in the eye of the beholder,” Roberts said. “At what point is somebody a user and at what point are they a dealer? … If you have a white woman who has developed a heroin problem and on the side she’s selling a little bit of heroin to maintain her own habit, somebody might say, ‘Oh, this poor woman; we need to get her in a program because she’s not really a dealer.’ You can take a black woman in the same case, but it’ll conjure up all these myths of crack moms and black women are terrible mothers, and she gets the book thrown at her.”

This country is addicted to punishment, and that punishment brutally bears down on black communities that have historically been sacrificed on the altar of white supremacy and capitalism. Communities where education is under attack, quality health care is scarce, employment doesn’t provide a livable wage and housing is often unaffordable and derelict are the communities most affected by drug policies meant to harm not heal.

There is more danger in encountering a police officer while high on marijuana than contained in the drug itself. Once police are authorized to occupy poor and working-class, black communities, suspicion of drug possession is often weaponized against its occupants. That alleged suspicion becomes just cause for police to gun down black people in the street, or in their cars, or in their homes; it becomes the reason why these extrajudicial killings are waved away by prosecutors and grand juries.

Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. Black and brown communities are blatantly targeted for broken-windows policing and surveillance; despite the New York Police Department’s fraudulent claim otherwise, the department is one of the biggest perpetrators of these racist tactics.

Now that opioid addiction is at epidemic levels and considered a crisis for white America, politicians have called for a “gentler” war on drugs that protects white drug users (and sellers) while still criminalizing black users and sellers—black sellers who often have been left no other choice to provide for their families.

Black mothers who have been harmed by the state over and over again, who then seek solace in drug use, are vilified, criminalized and abandoned. Susan Burton, whose son was killed when an Los Angeles Police Department officer ran him over and kept driving, needed relief from her pain. And for nearly 20 years, she cycled in and out of jail on nonviolent drug charges, before ultimately creating A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which currently assists 32 women and about four children re-enter society with the support system they need.

Black women struggling with poverty and drug addiction have been targeted by police officers and raped. They are told that giving the state ownership of their bodies and their voices is the only way they can be free.

But that’s not all.

Civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize money and property of those suspected of criminal activity—even if there is no conviction—disproportionately targets black people living in poverty. Once they are incarcerated, often after being arrested for low-level drug offenses, they are held hostage by a cash bail system that punishes people for their inability to pay their way out of jail. Be clear: These are modern-day debtor’s prisons, which were outlawed in this country nearly 200 years ago and ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1983—unless, it seems, you’re black and poor.

Even more egregious is the “pay-to-stay” scheme, which holds incarcerated people responsible for their room, board, clothing and medical treatment; and following release on either probation or parole, they are required for pay for their own supervision. The financial pressure this often places on families is insurmountable and the cycle continues.

Further, if someone is arrested on felony charges, they often lose their right to vote.

As the Drug Policy Alliance’s Melissa Franqui notes, 1 in 13 black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a rate four times greater than that of nonblack people.

“There’s only one thing that’s in America and in the United States that classifies you and declares you a citizen, that’s your right to vote,” said the pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder and president of the Ordinary People Society, a faith-based organization in Dothan, Ala., which fights for the re-enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people.

“So if I get a felony that takes away my right to vote, so that also takes away my citizenship,” Glasgow said. “So what is this war on drugs really about?”

This war on black, brown, indigenous, working-class and poor people is functioning exactly as intended. It turns bodies into profit margins, justice into collateral, and freedom into a privileged commodity.

It should almost be expected that many black people have internalized these anti-black, institutional assaults. Poverty in this capitalist nation is considered a moral failing, despite the reality that it has been constructed to sustain white supremacy by any means necessary. We have been told that the shame is ours, but that the burden is imagined.

If I get a felony that takes away my right to vote, so that also takes away my citizenship. So what is this war on drugs really about? —Kenny Glasgow

This Black History Month, The Root and Drug Policy Alliance will disrupt the systems of harm and abuse that seek to dehumanize black people. We will speak with grassroots organizers doing revolutionary work to ensure that this nation’s addiction to punishment, class warfare and anti-black policies does not destroy us all.

Kirsten West Savali is a journalist with TheRoot.com.

This piece originally appeared on TheRoot.com.

*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.

Black History Month