Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste” has been making the rounds of late. In the essay, based on her book of the same name, Alexander makes two key posits: that the United States has “a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have ‘moved beyond’ race” and, indirectly, that drug legalization may address criminal justice inequalities people of color experience.
Predictably, drug legalization advocates back assertions of racism and the drug war. Over-the-top, hyper-violent police conduct related to drug arrests and MTV covering Tupac Shakur’s mother Afeni Shakur’s recent drug arrest are just two recent though disparate examples that cast further aspersions on drug prohibition. But is the drug legalization movement really a solution to a problem that is at the root of such examples, namely ongoing racism, which is seldom addressed?
Though Alexander is most certainly right the United States promotes post-racialism when racial justice clashes remain prominent in the news and elsewhere, the crimes committed upon communities of color do not necessarily reach a legalization conclusion. Drug laws may be draconian, but to use examples of abuse is rather easy. The animal rights movement, for instance, uses horrible images of mistreatment to advocate for equality between humans and other creatures. Such is old rhetorical sleight of hand, yet it’s still just that — sleight of hand.
There are three good reasons for people of color to question the drug legalization movement.
1.) Drug legalization does not change the nature of policing.
As tomdispatch and many others acknowledge, there are problems with budgets and prisons. No one disputes this issue. A pathological obsession with mandating long sentences and death penalties in the U.S. has reached unmanageable proportions. Everything from the law of parties to legalized brutality such as castration shore up the public’s basest desires for justice at any cost. For people of color, however, the issue is not merely out-of-control drug policy, but a racist criminal justice system few are simply willing to say is racist and needs immediate redress.
The drug legalization movement, for people of color, represents a classic quandary as far as longterm political strategy: focusing on dealing with symptoms of a problem rather than taking on the problem (in this case, white racism and, more broadly, white supremacy and neocolonialism) directly. Most of these good, sincere efforts are not grounded in history, or recognize people of color faced mass criminalization before prohibition.
Of policing, Kristan Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, says:
Sovereignty, and even states, are older than the police. “European kingdoms in the Middle Ages became ‘law states’ before they became ‘police states,’” meaning that they made laws and adjudicated claims before they established an independent mechanism for enforcing them. Organized police forces arose specifically when traditional, informal, or community-maintained means of social control broke down. This breakdown was always prompted by a larger social change, often by a change which some part of the community resisted with violence, such as the creation of a state, colonization, or the enslavement of a subject people. In other words, it was at the point where authority was met with resistance that the organized application of force became necessary.
The aims and means of social control always approximately reflect the anxieties of elites. In times of crisis or pronounced social change, as the concerns of elites shift, the mechanisms of social control are adapted accordingly. So, in the South, following real or rumored slave revolts, the institution of the slave patrol emerged. White men were required to take shifts riding between plantations, apprehending runaways and breaking up slave gatherings.
Later, complex factors conspired to produce the modern police force. Industrialization changed the system of social stratification and added a new set of threats, subsumed under the title of the “dangerous classes.” Moreover, while serious crime was on the decline, the demand for order was on the rise owing to the needs of the new economic regime and the ideology that supported it. In response to these conditions, American cities created a distinctive brand of police. They borrowed heavily from the English model already in place, but also took ideas from the office of the constable, the militia, and the semi-professional, part-time enforcement bodies like the night watch and the slave patrols.
Every drug legalization advocacy argument implies by omission that liberalizing drug laws to the nth degree tomorrow will free people of color from overpolicing, racial profiling and institutional violence. Law enforcement has been guilty of atrocious behavior during the drug war. Yet is anyone in a community of color sincerely of the belief police will not abuse people of color, railroad us or continue to treat people of color like criminals because someone can smoke pot or shoot heroin up without legal sanction?
Drug legalization advocates, by failing to address the epidemic of police violence as a whole visited on communities of color, live in an illusion if they believe other justifications won’t be created. Consider some of the more famous police brutality cases outside of Rodney King — Abner Louima, Sean Bell, Ida Lee Delaney… the list goes on.
2.) Drug legalization movements avoid larger problems faced by people of color.
The drug-law process is broken, but, as profound as the criminalization may be, people of color face institutional problems far more deep, including the criminal justice system itself.
Disenfranchisement of people of color is on display in many instances. Issues such as economics are creating an “ethnic recession” for people of color, while health care, legislation or not, is a crisis for people of color. Globalization is decimating the Third World, and what U.S. companies and comprador elements have wrought there — lack of opportunities and transnational migration as a result — is now appearing in immigration fights. The Black is Back Coalition frames the political terrain this way:
Unemployment and an imposed drug economy, the ongoing theft of value through home foreclosure and other means, reveal the use of our people as a reserve labor force as well as a reserve source of capital accumulation. The police murder of our young men and the denial of any meaningful health care – all of these factors contribute to our ability to characterize our status in the U.S. as subjects rather than citizens.
Drug legalization movements seek to involve people of color by citing criminal justice statistics, but such movements do not genuinely address institutional racism that is at hand. In that sense, groups like the Drug Policy Foundation of Texas are not uncommon. Money is spent on outreach, but little seems to be invested in the communities of color affected by these issues.
When was the last time, if ever, you saw a drug-law group unite with communities of color around education, housing, employment discrimination or any of a number of issues people of color deal with day-to-day? Virtually all drug legalization advocacy groups post on their websites how felony drug laws disenfranchise Black men. How many of them are in the communities providing jobs for these men, or helping families fighting to meet basic needs when these men face employment discrimination, can’t find jobs, etc.?
The problem with drug legalization for people of color is such a movement is a single-issue matter and, like most single-issue stuff, is intended to get a large number of people to stand with its cause, without much consideration to the realities potential supporters face. Such an observation is not solely one of drug legalization groups, but needs discussion.
3.) The potential impact of drug legalization on poor communities of color needs to be openly debated.
Carefully chosen language (“drug policy reform,” “opposed to the drug war”) by drug legalization groups should not mask the endgame for many organizations of legalization of marijuana and, in some cases, all drugs. Many sell a libertarian-capitalist’s wet dream, in which government can regulate and tax narcotics like alcohol and cigarettes and underground businesses can be legitimized. Mom and pop dope dealers get to set up shop and everyone gets to be an entrepreneur. And the forest animals even come out for a big singing number at the end.
Does anyone really believe that ideal?
I make no bones about my dog in this fight: I have no interest backing anyone’s profit-making pangs coming at the expense of poor people. One need only walk through a community of color to see the spoils of vulture capitalism: large corporations who do nothing for the Black and Brown community heavily marketing alcohol, cigarettes and various medications to communities of color all over the United States. If you live in or have lived in a community of color, you know what it is like to live in the nursery of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand’s love child: profiteering gone amok, unchecked and with tacit support of the majority population who believe it is okay for the poor to have crap they don’t need piled into their communities, that people wanting to make a buck off them can do what they please so long as they don’t promise to cure anything or give them something that makes an arm fall off, and everyone else pretends like this is the way it is supposed to be.
In a capitalist framework, those with the money and resources — in the case of drug legalization, most assuredly Big Pharma or whatever industry moves first — can swing the campaign donations, lobbyists, advertising and favorable regulations to ensure they and they alone maintain hegemony over an industry while those without the resources can be criminalized and swept aside. We see this today in every market, from alcohol to medicinal treatments, and it is naive to think legalized marijuana and other drugs would be any different. That means economically disadvantaged people of color will remain an incarcerated underclass and those with power, generally white, will not face the same sanction, while the streets of communities of color face another flood of marketing and unnecessary products.
More importantly, drug legalization speaks to larger questions of political objectives. The Black Panther Party, in pamphlets like Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide [PDF], called the drug culture a result of social pressures on people of color to seek escapes from the racism and discrimination faced.
A characteristic feature of class and racial oppression is the ruling class policy of brainwashing the oppressed into accepting their oppression. Initially, this program is carried out by viciously implanting fear into the minds and sowing the seeds of inferiority in the souls of the oppressed. But as the objective conditions and the balance of forces become more favorable for the oppressed and more adverse to the oppressor, it becomes necessary for the oppressor to modify his program and adopt more subtle and devious methods to maintain his rule. The oppressor attempts to throw the oppressed psychologically off-balance by combining a policy of vicious repression with spectacular gestures of good-will and service.
Moreover, the Party pointed out drug use was provided as an option to people of color as a means of numbing them to the hardships they faced, and to keep them distracted from fighting against their own oppression. In speaking about Timothy Leary, Eldridge Cleaver acknowledged occasional marijuana use by Panthers, but called the drug culture a counterrevolutionary betrayal of the goals of Black liberation. The concept of the period was that drug use had a tendency to weaken users and made them less intellectually and physically capable of defending themselves and their communities.
Do drug legalization movements offer anything to people of color? It’s positive to have the public talking about policing. It is also good to see a larger dialog about criminal justice. However, drug legalization movements must consider the bigger picture for communities of color to be truly relevant.
What is needed is a more clear movement — one that isn’t positioned, as so many tragically are, on the presumption that one’s freedom is predicated on legal sanctions and tax breaks for small businesspeople. We also must be honest that a mass anti-racist movement will mean an end to abuses against people of color more than a drug legalization movement ever will.
People of color need to look critically at these movements. What are they practically doing for the community? What will such advocacy, if it comes to pass, mean for communities of color under the current system of law and politics? Pressing ourselves with harder questions, rather than passively supporting relaxed drug laws without considering who profits, is a good start.
- Call Out to People of Color From the #OccupyWallStreet People of Color Working Group
- Environmental Justice Principles & People of Color
- Circular Firing Squads: Conflating Movements with Communities
- Activists of Color in the New Movement: Lessons From RNC Organizing
- Bronx Copwatch Training Forthcoming