an American nightmare

April 12th, 2009

But simple unemployment doesn’t capture the full scope of economic distress, to understand where we are now you have to take a look at where we’re coming from.

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. Whites could drink as much as they pleased – as well as use opiates and cocaine, but if you were a minority in much of antebellum America you were prohibited from imbibing or using any drug at all.

At the time it was a widely held belief in American politics that some races, bless their brown souls, simply couldn’t control themselves. Furthering the codification of this perception, in 1901 Henry Cabot Lodge spearheaded a law in the U.S. Senate banning the sale of liquor and now opiates as well to all “uncivilized races.”

In this case, “uncivilized” was synonymous with “dark.” At this point in American history, whites could get as drunk, high, or smacked as they wanted – while the brown-skinned members of American society were completely banned from consuming any intoxicant.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, any violence carried out by a black man against a white could be attributed to the commonly-held caricature of a “cocaine-crazed negro.” Newspaper headlines screamed of coked-up black criminals who were SHOT BUT DON’T DIE! and policemen claiming that WE NEED BIGGER BULLETS! because their current caliber wasn’t large enough to stop the crack-crazed negroes they routinely came up against in the line of duty. It was actually this specter of THE COCAINIZED-NIGGER that led to police nationwide to upgrade their guns from .32 caliber to .38 caliber.

However blacks weren’t singled out as a racial minority, the first anti-marijuana laws targeted the wave of Mexican immigrants who were spreading across the American South. They were seen, then as now, to be stealing jobs and government resources from resident whites, and so politicians from that region of the country first banned marijuana use by minorities alone and then eventually altogether.

Nixon’s public claim that the War on Drugs was primarily a response to the growing number of addicted veterans was at best a lie of omission. Taking into account past legal precedent, and the fact that American urban centers were being wracked by a series of seemingly unending race riots, it becomes self-evident that the War on Drugs was simply another page in the story of American anti-drug laws that has always been rooted in racism.

Then in 1973, with Nixon desperately attempting to spin his way out of Watergate, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller passed a set of laws that were soon mimicked by several other states and eventually the entire federal government.

They were minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes that, partially because they included a fifteen-year prison term for possessing even a small amount of narcotics, were the harshest the country had ever seen. The per-capita prison population of the United States remained constant from 1930 to right around 1973, at which point the graph begins an exponential climb that grows steeper and steeper with every passing year.

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 its own data, effectively removing mixed-race prisoners from their statistics entirely?

These counter-narcotics laws that, both by design and in practice, fueled an explosion in our prison population – a population which started disproportionately black – with 90% of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller laws either Latino or black – and only growing to become more so as the years passed. Between 1979 and 1990 blacks made up a steady percent of our overall population, but between those same years blacks went from making up 39% of our drug-related prison population to 53% of it.

Today that number’s down to 51.2%. An improvement, but hardly.

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