As our financial crisis deepens and the schisms between the haves and the have-nots continue to open, American drug laws and the prison system they’ve helped create are beginning to gather an increasingly harsh spotlight. But so what. It’s not like the War on Drugs, begun almost two generations ago in 1973, has done anything to increase the growing level of economic disparity in America… right?
A lot happened in 1973.
It was a few years after Nixon slammed the gold window shut, the waning hours of a decapitated Civil Rights movement, when the kindling of an energy crisis was beginning to pile up, and the year we began to disentangle ourselves from Vietnam.
But it also marks the genesis of the War on Drugs, the year the Rockefeller Drug Laws were passed. And that same year something funny happened: the income gap between black and white began to widen back out, instead of closing – as it had been up until 1973.
Maybe the fact that upon their arrest two-thirds of male prisoners had been their family’s primary earner, and that upon their release their annual earnings are cut by 40% has something to do with it?
Did the start of the War on Drugs play a significant role in creating our present economic and social realities – where the average black family has eight-cents of wealth for every dollar owned by whites, and a black child is nine-times more likely than a white child to have a parent in prison?1
We’ve certainly come a long way as a nation since Abolition, but the horrible reality is that a black child who was born during slavery was more likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during the twenty-first century. As Fredrick Douglass explained, during slavery it was common practice to separate children born into slavery from their birth-mothers before their first birthday. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that under slavery blacks were human chattel, and separating newborns calves from their mothers is just what you do with livestock.
Things had been looking up for black families, back in 1963 as MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech about 70% of black families were headed by a married couple. But that percentage steadily began to drop, between 1970 and 2001 it declined by 34%, twice the white rate, and by 2002 it had bottomed out at just 48%.
As the Arab world is wracked by the spasms of popular violence brought on by their social and economic inequality, many Americans have begun to stop and consider the possibility that violent fissures in our own society may begin to open. Much has been made of the emerging upperclass in American society, but the reality is that with the average white family over ten-times as wealthy as the average black family – no economic disparity is starker than the one that correlates directly with race.
Is all of this just coincidence, or is there demonstrable cause-and-effect at work? Are things bad enough to cause the Department of Justice to deliberately massage their own data, and effectively remove mixed-race prisoners from their statistics entirely?
If you’re familiar American drug laws, it shouldn’t surprise you that some 90% of those arrested under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the first years after its passing were minorities. In fact, the impact of the War on Drugs has been so racially biased that the United States now has a greater percentage of its black population in prison than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid. Our penal system has grown so massive that the U.S. criminal justice system now employs more people than America’s two largest private employers, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, combined.
The explaination is not that blacks simply use drugs at a higher rate than whites. If anything, studies have shown that whites, “particularly white youths, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” Surveys published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that compared to black students white students were seven times as likely to use cocaine, eight times as likely to use crack cocaine, seven times as likely to use heroine, and were a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs.
Drug laws in America, after all, “have originally been based on racism… all of these laws are based on the belief that there is a class in society that can control themselves, and there is a class in society which cannot.”1 The popularly cited motivation for the War on Drugs is that it was a response to the growing numbers of military serviceman who were getting hooked on heroin and other narcotics while serving in the Vietnam War.
Although that was a troublesome issue, when you know the history of all past American drugs laws it quickly becomes apparent that there’s no way in hell drug-using veterans was the only impetus behind this wave of anti-drug legislation, and that Nixon was using soldiers’ addiction as opportunistic displacement. As one Nixon’s Chief of Staff wrote in his diary: “Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognises this while not appearing to.” And if there’s any doubt about the weight that quote might have had on legislation, here are Nixon’s own words on abortion: “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. ” And when exactly would that be? “When you have a black and a white.”
Following the Civil War the earliest anti-drug laws were passed in some states, banning the consumption of alcohol. But not, of course, for everyone.