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The War on Drugs is a decades-long United States policy intended to curb illegal drug use and trafficking. Long story short: it has not worked to reduce drug use or trade, and the policy has had devastating effects, especially on communities of color. Today we'll talk about the history of the War on Drugs, what it was trying to accomplish, and how it contributed to the US as a carceral state and the nation that imprisons more of its population than any country in the world.

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Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
Khalil Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Beth Ritchie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
Carly Hayden Foster, The Welfare Queen: Race, Gender, Class, and Public Opinion, 15 Race, Gender & Class 162–179 (2008).

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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

You know, every nation’s government has to create policies. Policies are plans that detail what the government wants to achieve. Some of those policies have good outcomes, and sometimes…not so good.

Today we are going to talk about the War on Drugs, a policy initiative that has gone on for years. It was designed, ostensibly, to stop drug use and drug dealing across the United States, but what ended up happening is that it entangled millions of Black people in the criminal legal systems for generations. For some people, this was an adverse consequence of a well-intentioned policy, but for others, this is exactly what they wanted the policy to do. Don’t believe me? Well, you might soon.

Let's start the show.

(Intro Music)

The official War on Drugs started in Richard Nixon’s Presidency in the early 70s and according to many activists continues on to this day, though officially it hasn’t been as much of a national obsession since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. It was an initiative promoted by the federal government, and multiple presidents—of both political parties—that aimed to stop the use, distribution, and trade of illegal drugs. But the thing is, a big part of how it did this was by implementing stricter, more severe prison sentences in an effort to deter drug dealers and users.

But the outcomes of the War on Drugs shows that even if you don't explicitly mention race in a policy, you may still be making a policy about race - sometimes that’s intentional and sometimes it’s not.

In order to understand the War on Drugs, we have to talk about the origins of the criminalization of Black communities. As we’ve discussed, this has been consistent throughout American history, but debates on how to address drug use in society began to affect Black communities more directly in the 1960s. 

Even though President Lyndon B. Johnson is best known for his great society legislation in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he also declared what was called a “War on Crime” in March of 1965. The War on Crime was not exactly the same as the War on Drugs, but it put in place many of the same powers that would eventually make the War on Drugs as expansive and as devastating as it was.

The War on Crime produced the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which in 1965 authorized the federal government to take a direct role in militarizing local police. Then the Safe Streets Act of 1968 invested 400 million dollars in the War on Crime and created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to oversee the funding. 

Most of it went to supervise and surveil low-income urban communities, even though those communities weren’t the only places that crime and drugs could be found. But low-income urban communities are where Black people often lived. 

These policies and research like the Moynihan Report - a report on poverty in Black communities - served to develop and spread stereotypes about Black urban poverty. They said that the tangle of poverty and drug use was largely the result of individual and cultural flaws.

The Moynihan report said that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” 

Moynihan acknowledged racism still played a role, but seemed to think that the real issue was the structure of Black families, which given all the structural impediments Black people were facing, just seems… off base.

All of this helped lead to the end of the previous war on poverty and shaped the rationale, legislation, and policies for the War on Crime.

Grassroots organizations like the Black Panther Party caught on to what was going on pretty quickly and organized to protect Black communities from the police violence that followed from being over-policed. Black Americans were brutally beaten and harassed by law enforcement, and many of them lost their lives.

They also realized the importance of political organizing and cultural power during these times so they created breakfast programs and community schools in an attempt to provide the resources for themselves that they felt the government wasn’t providing for them.

The War on Drugs formally began during the Nixon presidency. He was the first person to use the term “War on Drugs”, and stated that drug abuse was “Public Enemy Number One.” President Nixon increased federal funding for drug control agencies and in 1973, he established the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the DEA, a special police force targeting illicit drug use and drug smuggling. The Nixon Administration also categorized marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, which is the most restrictive drug category in the United States. Meaning punishments for being found with that drug would be severe.

During Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, there were some efforts to make drug policy slightly less punitive, and between 1973 and 1977, 11 states did decriminalize marijuana possession. But the War on Drugs was far from over.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan brought back many of the drug possession and distribution policies of the Nixon Administration. The First Lady, Nancy Reagan, even started her famous “Just Say No” campaign, which was intended to address the dangers of drug use. The Reagan Administration also pushed for smaller government more broadly, arguing that the expansion of social resources, like welfare programs and increased funding for community programming, contributed to a sense of over-reliance and exacerbated perceived social failings.

During Reagan’s administration is when we see some of the most severe policies related to drug use in US history. They passed harsh penalties at the federal level and encouraged state legislators to implement these harsh penalties as well. This led to a massive increase of incarceration for non-violent drug crimes. And these policies dis-proportionally impacted Black and Latino communities. 

And many argue that the Reagan Administration did actually intend to make some of these policies about race. I mean, they created The Welfare Queen stereotype, a harmful caricature of a Black woman who used welfare checks, and child rearing, to take money from the government. While never actually saying that the Welfare Queen was Black, Reagan relied on pretty racist language to promote this idea and used similar language while promoting the War on Drugs. 

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which also had very harmful implications for Black and Brown communities. It created longer prison sentences for individuals who used crack cocaine, which was typically used by Black Americans, and shorter prison sentences for those who used powder cocaine, which was typically used by White Americans. For example, if a person had five grams of crack, it would trigger an automatic five-year sentence. But a person had to have 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. 

So these War on Drugs policies had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Because it wasn’t just Black people using drugs. A lot of people were using drugs. People of all races and all backgrounds. But the Presidential Administrations in the United States disproportionately targeted and penalized Black and Brown Americans for drug use. And penalizing them more severely than they did their White counterparts.

To be clear, crack cocaine had a devastating effect on the Black community. It created addictions, deaths, and drug-related crimes - hamstringing many vibrant communities of color. But it is important to address /why/ this was happening. There were huge structural changes happening within cities. This led to White Flight, deindustrialization, loss of employment, rise of low paying service jobs and general urban blight. Many Black middle-class families also left cities for the suburbs as well. 

The loss of jobs and services in the inner cities led to the growth of alternative economies. It also led to crime and social dislocation. And it was the combination of all of these social, economic, and political forces that contributed to the devastation of drugs on the Black urban community. It wasn’t just individual failings. It wasn't culture 

During the Clinton Administration, the Violent Crime Control Act allowed for over 9 billion dollars to be allotted for prison construction in the United States and 8 billion dollars for 100,000 police officers.

There was also an expansion of the federal death penalty, mandatory minimum sentencing, and truth-in-sentencing incentives to encourage states to advocate for harsher punishments without parole. This is also when the three strikes provision was promoted in the United States. This meant that a defendant might get a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if they had two prior convictions that were considered a violent offense. 

All of these policies created a huge increase in incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses - going from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. A disproportionate amount of those incarcerated folks were Black Americans. And after all this, the War on Drugs didn’t even decrease drug use.

Some people pushed back against criticism of the War on Drugs and the subsequent consequences of mass incarceration by saying that Black Americans supported it, but that sort of take is rooted in kind of misremembering the past. 

As the scholars Elizabeth Hinton, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, and Vesla M. Weaver have written, “Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality… It’s not just that those demands were ignored completely. It’s that some elements were elevated and others were diminished… When Blacks ask for /better/ policing, legislators tend to hear /more/ instead.” 

Most experts today agree that the War on Drugs was a failure. It didn’t decrease the number of drugs used in many communities. And it actually had some pretty awful consequences. It was the catalyst that produced the Carceral State - a term that, in part, describes the billions of dollars the US government filters into the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects people of color. That money goes to the budgets of police, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even prison staff.

Here are some stats on what the War on Drugs actually did: 
One FBI study noted that while Blacks represented only 12 percent of all illegal drug users, they made up 41 percent of all those arrested on cocaine and heroin charges. 
Women, disproportionately Black women, are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the United States 
Since 1970, America’s incarcerated population has increased by 500 percent - resulting in over 2 million people in jail and prison today. 
And despite being only 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s prison population.

According to studies, today Black and White people use and sell illicit drugs at similar rates, but Black people are roughly 2.6 times more likely to get arrested for drug crimes. And I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve taught in prisons where young men have been locked up for doing the same things some of my White college classmates did. The difference is that one group was targeted, and another group wasn’t. And oftentimes that’s what decides who ends up in a prison, and who ends up free. 

Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.

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