The War on Drugs is a War Against Black People

I must confess I feel a certain amount of guilt that I have largely squandered much of my talent on trivialities and stuff that doesn’t amount to what the little bird left on the tree limb (another one of my father’s colorful metaphors.  Thanks, Dad!)

Everyone who has a gift needs to use that gift and everyone is gifted at something.   Maybe it’s nothing more meaningful than being able to crack your knuckles or fart upon command.  I never said it had to be a useful gift.

I know how to write.  That’s my gift.  And I don’t think I’m going to get much better at it than I am now.  I can always fix some things and tweak some others, but for the most part, where I am now is about as good as I’ve ever going to be.   Having said that what I need next, what I need most, is a purpose.  Unfocused talent has no meaning and no purpose and is betrayal to the gifts God has blessed you with.

I believe I may have found that purpose.

More important than whether the next fall TV season will depict a middle class Black family or how many Black coaches are in the NFL or even whether Barack Obama wins a second term is ending the War on Drugs.

At its dark little heart, the War on Drugs is a barely concealed War on Black People. It imprisons Black people, destroys Black families, fails to make Black communities safer and puts those caught up in it in a revolving door from prison to the streets where they find themselves marked for life by a criminal record, lack of opportunities, voter disenfranchisement and more than likely a return to breaking the law and returning to prison. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers. Denying African-Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy. The arguments and rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the same. An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is a law professor from Ohio State University and would probably be described a liberal activist, but ending the failed and misdirected War on Drugs is a rooting interest for conservatives as well such as John McWhorter, my colleague at The Root:

My suggestion: Making black America better will entail battling the senseless war on drugs. Police forces assigned to trawl black neighborhoods create thousands of young black people wary of whites — and thus less likely to ever succeed in a world full of them. When drugs are illegal, you can make money from the markup that selling them entails, and thus, so very many young blacks step outside of legal work to do so — especially when their schools are bad — and end up in prison or a coffin.

Their children grow up in communities where two-parent families are rare, are subject to the disruptive home lives that make it hard to be a good student, and often end up recapitulating the lives of their parents. Selling drugs means turf wars wielded with guns, which kill people, including little girls and grandmothers caught in crossfire.

Take away the war on drugs and all of this dissolves. With one generation of black inner-city boys who have never known cops as the enemy; who think of “slingin’ on them corners” as something old-school that no one could do now; and who stay in their neighborhoods to help raise their kids, black America would turn a corner.

Paradise? No. Decisively better than now? Certainly. Think about it: If there were no war on drugs, The Wire’s Felicia “Snoop” Pearson wouldn’t be in jail right now, despite how hard her childhood was.

The economy offers no work to young black people? Out of the many answers to that, here’s the most important: Anything whatsoever that black boys do besides sell drugs on street corners — anything at all — would be an improvement, and we all know it. Hard drugs available at stores? Yes, in standardized (and certified clean) doses — along with funding, now used to terrorize inner-city blacks, freed up for rehab. That’s a sane trade-off, especially given that there has been no addiction epidemic in countries that have relaxed their drug laws.So: I would like to see black America rise up, indeed — against the real problem: the war on drugs. No more “Black America in the Age of Obama” powwows; what are they for in 2011, really? Let’s do something real.

Write your congressman. Follow Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. If you want to attend old-style forums, too, bring up the war on drugs in the question-and-answer session. Actively observe how the war on drugs snakes through almost everything that looks like an unrelated cluster of black-neighborhood problems.

If it helps, call the war on drugs “the New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander does in her book that just got an NAACP Image Award. Just fight it. Fight something that can change.


After I watched Alexander’s speech I went out and bought her book that same day.  It wasn’t news to me how disproportionate the price that has been paid by Blacks in America’s misguided “war” but I’m still capable of being stunned when she reveals how there are more people in prison now for drug related crimes than for all reasons in 1980.

Even more shocking according to Alexander,”More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”   That’s Black men whom aren’t being fathers to their children or husbands to their wives or working, paying taxes and making a positive contribution.

Mind you, I’m not calling for the legalization of drugs, though it’s not something I’m opposed to either.  People like getting high and no law has ever stopped them from getting high and never will.   It is not enough though to be informed about the issues.  Every so often you have to choose a side, pick a fight and put some action behind your beliefs.

The fact that I have a nephew whom is now locked away in a Ohio prison gives me a personal interest in this matter. The prison industrial complex is real and with Ohio’s governor wanting to privatize the prisons he is creating an economic incentive to lock up Black, Brown and poor White people.

There are a host of excellent reasons to end the War on Drugs, but for African-Americans it could be the critical civil rights issue of today.

The War on Drugs has made our streets more violent and less safe.  The War on Drugs has filled up prisons with thousands of people of color.  The War on Drugs has created a new business mode predicated upon keeping those people of color locked up.   The War on Drugs has made Mexico and other countries war zones where violent gangs butcher innocents and corrupt everything they touch as they battle it out to feed America’s nasty habits. The War on Drugs is a war against Constitutional and human rights.  It’s a war on everything BUT drugs.

This is a racist war and it must be stopped.  I must play my part in stopping it before it hurts my community, my country, and my people anymore than it already has.

5 thoughts on “The War on Drugs is a War Against Black People

  1. Great posting! You are onto an extremely worthy cause. Another contributing element to the inordinately large percentage of blacks in prison is due to a neglect of early childhood learning issues that result in poor reading skills and lead to kids feeling their choices in life are few. Then, when combined with the issues you are calling attention to, the incarceration result is practically automatic. I’ve recently found a cause to get behind as well (eliminating the cruelties and world-threatening practices of factory farming) thanks to Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, which I just finished reading yesterday; still working on my blog entry about it. He found a cause on which to use his own writing skill and really got through to me. Your voice will be heard, Jeff–you’re a great writer.


  2. Pingback: Drug Bust « The Enclave

  3. Pingback: More Black Men Now in Prison System than Enslaved in 1850 « Interrace Magazine

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