SOC 3: Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality
The War on Drugs MINORITIES
In the mid nineteenth century, an enormous number of Chinese immigrants came to California to help build the railroads. White people didn’t want to do this work, and yet blamed Chinese workers for the lack of jobs. Bigotry, populism, and economic factors prompted white people in California to label these people undesirable. Undesirable groups such as these Chinese immigrant workers in California and Latin immigrant workers were labeled as different races in order to separate them from the rest of the population, then they were each targeted with criminalization of some of their customs in order to mass incarcerate them or drive them out.
Chinese immigrants were targeted for mass incarceration or expatriation by the prohibition of opium smoking which was a custom of theirs, according to the outlines. Latin immigrants were targeted for mass incarceration or expatriation by the relabeling of Hemp as “Marijuana” and its subsequent demonization and prohibition, according to the film The House I Live In. White people already did both of these things for centuries, and did so under different labels and stigmas which did not come with punishments. For example according to the film, Bayer sold Heroin as a brand name product and all the founding fathers grew and smoked hemp. White privilege is the difference between smoking hemp and smoking marijuana, or between drinking opiate syrups from the drug store rather than smoking those same opiates. The customs of white people were not illegal, though the same substances consumed in the preferred manner of marginalized cultures was illegal.
“The War on Drugs” was Richard Nixon’s 1971 moniker for a wave of harsh new drug sentences and police militarization. The ostensible goal of this campaign was “getting tough on crime,” but in reality the war on drugs blames victims of addiction for what is actually a health crisis, rather than a crime crisis. This is bad enough, but the real goal of the war on drugs was more sinister. According to the film and outlines, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Nixon and others knowingly misrepresented the real goal of this “war” which was to target political dissident groups and racial minorities with mass incarceration. Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws were very effective at mass incarcerating millions of victims of addiction as well as political dissidents such as “beatniks,” and “hippies” and racial minorities. Many of these people are still serving decades or life in prison for nonviolent and trivial “crimes.”
The War on Drugs deliberately and methodically targets minority groups for incarceration. According to the documentary as well as several course outlines, black people and Latin people are dramatically over-represented in prisons, and enforcement of drug laws is typically done based on geographical areas where minorities live. It is commonplace for police to simply round up a group of marginalized people who have been forced into this pervasive shadow economy, and look after the fact for trivial crimes such as possession of a minuscule amount of drugs. The marginalized people then face decades or life in for-profit prisons.
In fact, the problem of over-representation of minority groups in American prisons goes all the way back to reconstruction. According to the outlines, it was a commonplace and widespread practice for sheriffs in the south to round up thousands of free black people and arrest them for confusing charges which their victims would not understand how to contest. Then these wrongfully imprisoned people would be rented out by the sheriffs to do hard labor for former slave owners, to the personal profit of the sheriffs. This system was in place over a century ago, and the prison industrial complex has never satisfied its appetite for profit-taking from the unjust mass incarceration of racial minorities.
The film shows interviews with cops, prison guards, community members, and private prison executives, all of whom agree that the war on drugs has done nothing to decrease or ameliorate the problem of drug addiction, and rather has had the opposite effect. Not only has it increased drug use, but it has industrialized it, as well as its opposition in the executive and judiciary. Those sheriffs who feel entitled to attack the rights of minority groups now have a whole industrial complex of their own, giving them every expensive military advantage in their war on minorities. They even have conventions as highlighted in the film, where they can meet vendors supplying new types of military products for the war on minorities.
According to the documentary, the war on “drugs” has made drugs cheaper, purer, and more widely available than ever before. It has also dramatically expanded the private prison industry as well as expanding legal services surrounding what has become a pipeline through the judiciary and into the prisons. A whole professional services sector has emerged to profit off of mass incarceration, and their profits have never been higher than they are today. The film highlights many awkward interviews with vendors at a convention dedicated to these types of professional services relating to mass incarceration.
Another side effect of the war on “drugs” has been the rise in generational poverty and “red-lined” areas of cities all over the country where minority groups live. According to the film, these people were often forced to live there through public housing policy. Once there, they can not get access to mortgages or other avenues of escape from the cycle of poverty and crime which was deliberately constructed to contain them.
Drugs were banned primarily to allow the mass incarceration and expatriation of racial minorities and political dissident groups. Ostensibly, they were also banned because of the idea that prohibition can actually stop something from happening, rather than driving it underground. This is not a crime crisis, it is a public health crisis. Only by ending prohibition and expanding our public health awareness to include these vulnerable people can we improve conditions. Militarization, mass incarceration, and victim blaming have done nothing but make the problem worse.