Drug War

Racism and the War on Drugs


Writing at The New Republic, John McWhorter reviews Michael Tonry's new book Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma. It's a provocative essay, particularly because McWhorter, who has called ending the drug war "the most meaningfully pro-black policy today," strongly challenges Tonry's argument that the drug war itself has been motivated by racism:

The drive to parse the War on Drugs as "the new racism" is its own manifestation of paranoid style. It reduces a complex amalgam of good intentions, unintended consequences, and mission creep—in sum, history—to a Manichaean opposition between clueless, overfed white oppressors and powerless black subalterns. It is an easy score, appealing to the part of us that played cops and robbers as children, and gets off on conspiracy theories as adults.

Read the whole thing here. Read Reason's drug policy coverage here.


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  1. Nothing like a good scary black man doing a perp walk to generate votes for prosecutors and budget increases for police.

    1. “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.” -New York Times editorial, Dec. 3, 1933

      As we all know, there is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, worse than a black man looking at a white woman twice.

      1. What a difference 78 years makes!

        1. How bout a stoned honky with the munchies for some brown sugar?

  2. The war on drugs has harmed po’ folks of all stripes much more than the minimum wage.

  3. I guess we should just all forget the “protect our white women” origins in the demonization of opium, coke and pot.

    1. They replaced all that with “chromosome damage”,”amotivational syndrome”, “gateway drug” and “is it normal for your teenage daughter to have anal sex with a lumberjack for $15?

      ON METH IT IS !!11!!

      1. is it normal for your teenage daughter to have anal sex with a lumberjack for $15?

        Given the state of Montana, better the lumberjack than the family’s prize stallion.

      2. So, in Montana, if a girl does meth, her parents start soliciting her for prostitution? That’s pretty sick.

        If my daughter did meth, she would still be my daughter. I wouldn’t start paying her for sex. That is fucking disgusting.

        1. After all, what are families for, right?

    2. Good point. Those are the drugs of the other. Not like alcohol, which is the drug good decent people use.

      1. He does have a point though – the racial disparity in sentencing laws was demanded by black community leaders and black politicians who said that crack cocaine was destroying the black community. For those of us who were around for the 80’s we can remember the moral panic that was crack cocaine and the preaching from the “civil rights” community that it was racism to not do more to crack down on crack.

        At every step of the drug war there has been a different stupid reason for the stupid actions we’ve taken as a society. If you don’t believe me, run down to Wal-Mart and pick up a bottle of 100 generic sudafed tablets.

        1. I was addressing the “protect the white wimmin” comment.

        2. this is true. i would argue that the WOD undeniably disproportionately affects blacks negatively, but i don’t think it was intended thay way, in many respect. the above crack examples being good ones – black community members begging for increased enforcement against crack dealers in their neighborhoods i am pretty sure were not anti-black racists.

          otoh, the war on bank robbery clearly disproportionately affects men, yet nobody decries that IT is sexist. men are arrested about 10 times as often for bank robbery as women, after all :l

      2. Unless of course your alcohol comes in a 40 oz. bottle and has a high alcohol content. If you want high alcohol beer you should be buying a microbrew, like white people do.

        1. the seattle liberals love racist crap like that too. a ban on “fortified” liquor in downtown, which of course affects poor people buying thunderbird type stuff, not people buying kick-ass potent microbrews at top dollar.

  4. I wish the WoD was motivated by racism. We would stand a better chance of getting rid of it anytime soon.

  5. He’s right. Drug prohibition arose in part on racism but they keep shifting the justification.The disparity in drug arrests isn’t racism. It is much easier to arrest people who violate laws in public, or who have known associates prone to snitch.

    1. We also have to step up enforcement in public housing – because it is racist not to. And around inner city schools. And in poor city neighborhoods.

      You see the same thing happening in trailer parks in more rural counties, but the numbers just aren’t the same – largely because there’s no organized “clean up our trailer park” lobby.

      Anywhere you have poor people in high concentrations, you are going to attract advocacy groups with a reasonable amount of political pull. They have the power to demand that something be done, but not the wisdom to see the unintended consequences of their demands. You’d think that the same forces would align behind school choice, but they can’t seem to shake the “you owe us more funding” mantra on education – just as they couldn’t shake the “throw drug dealers in jail for infinity” mantra as a panacea for drug use and drug related crime.

    2. No, it didn’t even arise in part on racism. The details of who is targeted disproportionally vary from time to time and place to place, but the general pattern of suppressing psychoactives of one kind or another has been going for a long time, all over the world.

  6. And what about all these damned muslims in our spelling bee!

  7. Oh God! Why does everything have to be about race? All kinds of people do drugs and all kinds of them get arrested or elected president like our Marxist Mulatto Barrack Hussein Obama, hmmm, hmm, hmm, did.

    1. Gregory, how about mendacious mulatto?

  8. McWhorter ends his piece by taking back everything he just said:

    “Could it be that appealing to our less reflective natures will be what stimulates America to end this travesty and bring on a day when a generation of blacks come of age with no sense of the police?and therefore of whites, and therefore of America?as their enemy? If so, then let’s pretend the War on Drugs is “Jim Crow.” We will not come close to healing racial tensions in America until the thoughtless absurdity of the drug war ends.”

    And about enemies…

    “Yes I know my enemies
    They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me
    Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
    All of which are American dreams
    All of which are American dreams”

    1. Another nice thing that people forget is the fact that most major metropolises are run by minority politicians. They have been for more than a generation. You can’t really argue that it is racism in city hall that drives enforcement of drug laws in Atlanta.

  9. As with a lot of things, it’s not racist, its socio-economic-ist.

    That those in the socio-economic status most easily harassed and manipulated by police are largely non-white is actually irrelevant. This group of people, nearly regardless of race, are used by those in power to keep power, keep jobs, keep budgets, and on and on.

  10. I don’t know. I think there’s a difference between capital R racism in the form of some intentional black-people-hating conspiracy and racism as effect, not cause. Like, if incarceration rates for non-violent drug crimes were reversed and it was young white men doing time in record numbers, I think the whole thing would be spun differently in media, in policy and in public opinion.

    And while the Balko nutpunch SWAT team raids did have a bit of diversity (equal opportunity dog killing and grandma terrorizing! Or worse!) I think if the majority of the victims were white and wealthy it wouldn’t just be Balko who gave a shit. And that’s racist, to my way of thinking.

    The WOD is wrong for every reason imaginable, but I don’t think we have to gloss over the fact that one of the reasons its been allowed to continue is that its primary victims’ skin color and poverty just aren’t “relatable.” Racism isn’t biggest wrong in the WOD but it’s a wrong that allows it to perpetuate.

    1. Next you’ll say it’s OK for them to move into our neighborhoods, and marry our daughters.

    2. the VAST majority of meth-heads, not to mention meth labs are … wait for it… white. like i said, i’ve been in dozens of meth-labs. never seen a single black person in any of them.

      and meth houses are amongst the most fortified and dangerous to raid (booby traps, video surveillance, etc.). i think some of these guys saw indiana jones one too many times.

      i can say at least from local experience, that most of our dynamic style raids are methlabs.

      three of my partners were shot on ONE raid. meth warrant. etc.

  11. The continuation of the war on drugs is racist. The white population is largely removed from the awful consequences of prohibition, and usually shrug off such costs with, “We can’t just legalize it!”

    It’s hard to take such a position if you care whatsoever for the victims of your policies.

    1. I wasn’t aware that “We can’t just legalize it!” was a position peculiar to whites.

    2. which is why I like the test proposed in the Steve Leavitt article, would you be willing to enforce a law personally. The WoD is a perfect example of people being perfectly comfortable as long as someone else is enforcing their morally reprehensible position, out of their sight.

      1. Dumb criterion, sorry. Most people other than little children don’t want a job in law enforcement, and they certainly don’t want to do it for free.

    3. this is complete rubbish. the white population is severely affected by meth (disproportionately so) and also a substantial %age (in fact about 95% of those i’ve seen recently) of the oxy arrests/cases.

  12. I think the WOD is mostly just the Puritanical need to stop people from enjoying themselves. The self-righteous view drinkers, smokers, stoners, gays, fat people, etc as weak and degenerate, whose behaviour must be stopped so they can be rightous, god-fearing, judgemental, clueless a**holes like themselves.

    1. Hey ! God didn’t put you on this earth to enjoy yourself !

  13. The War on Drugs failed Billions of dollars ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and download my FREE poster at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…..-2011.html

  14. McWhorter is dead wrong on this one. At least here in the deep south it’s racism, straight up.

  15. for people who think racism is behind the drug war, consider… meth

    some of the most draconian laws, and intense enforcement efforts are against meth possession and manufacture

    meth is also almost exclusively a “white person” drug. i have been in at least 2 dozen meth labs, and dealt with tons of meth users, dealers, etc.

    in brief – not even once have i seen a black person involved.

    not… once.

    different drugs disproportionately appeal to different groups, and that includes race (class matters as well. rich and middle class kids tend to like ecstacy – see:rave culture)

    presumably, if (anti-black) racism was so important to drug warriors, they wouldn’t be so gung ho on meth enforcement

    1. Funny you should say that, because I’m white and middle class, and do enjoy me some x from time to time.

      It’s like when somebody on here a few months ago said we need to get libertarianism out of the “white suburban middle class nerd-core”, and I just looked at myself in a mirror and was sad (dead-on description of me, and pretty much everybody in the Dallas-area LP).

      1. a lot of people have made the same critique of modern feminism (almost exclusively white middle/upper class women) orgs, etc.

        blacks obviously lean statist dem, and that’s not surprising for several reasons.

        i know guys who work meth pretty much exclusively (drug warriors) and they say one saving grace is they never get accused of racism or racial profiling or other such hogwash, because they deal with 99.9% white dudes and chicks.

        heck, i remember guarding some white spracker (methhead) at the hospital after he had been shot by one of my coworkers and he lamented “there won’t be any protest marches for me. i’m just a piece of shit white trash meth-head”


  16. Had to comment here because this topic has long interested me.
    If the majority think the war on drugs is doing what it’s supposed to, then it’s understandable many would believe the war on drugs is racist in its motivation. John McWhorter is exactly correct to say: Let’s end the war on drugs right now, then we can argue about it.

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