The Birth of the Fictitious "War On Drugs" and Ronald Reagan

Posted: Saturday, October 5, 2013 by Bryan Troupe in

There may be more African American men in prison today than there were in slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation. African Americans and Latinos have been talking about these issues for years - the school to prison pipeline, the prison industrial complex, The New Jim Crow - but not many in positions of power have taken note. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander lays out these issues in great specificity, showing how the issues of slavery and Jim Crow are even more relevant today. The postings below are directly from Alexander's book, the first chapter of The New Jim Crow. While it is important to know that the War on Drugs started with the Reagan administration, we should also recognize that all of the following presidents - Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama - have for the most part continued these policies. This is the first posting of many to come on this issue. 

Michelle Alexander writes, “Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.”

Ronald Reagan came into the presidency with the strong support of disaffected whites, (poor and working class), who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s civil rights agenda.

He echoed white frustration in race-neutral terms such as “welfare queens” and criminal “predators”.
When Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign, he started at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi – where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. He told the crowd there, “I believe in states’ rights,” and vowed to restore states and local governments the power that belonged to them.

Reagan frequently attacked crime and welfare during his presidential campaign. One of his most often told stories was of the Chicago “welfare queen with 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and whose tax income alone is over $150,000.” He attacked the food stamp program with stories such as, “some fellow ahead of you buy a T-bone steak while you were standing in a checkout line with your package of hamburger.” These type of analogies were normally followed up with promises to be tougher on crime and to enhance federal government’s role of combating it. The result was 22 percent of Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan, and 34 percent of those Democrats believed that civil rights leaders were pushing “too fast.”
Before Reagan was elected president, street crime was traditionally fought by state and local law enforcement. Once Reagan was elected, the Justice Department announced a decision to cut the number of specialists in half that were assigned to prosecute white-collar criminals and to shift them to street crime detail, particularly drug-law enforcement. In 1982, Reagan announced his administration’s War on Drugs.

At the time that Reagan declared this War on Drugs, less than 2 percent of the nation viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. However, by raging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his campaign promise to crack down on the racially defined “others” – the undeserving.

Between 1980 and 1984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Between 1981 and 1991, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 million to $1.026 billion. Yet, funding for drug treatment, prevention, and education programs were reduced. The budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse was reduced from $274 million to $57 million from 1981 to 1984 and antidrug funds to Department of Education were reduced from $14 million to $3 million.

Crack cocaine hit the streets in 1985, a few years after Reagan’s War on Drugs was announced. The Reagan administration took the opportunity to publicize crack cocaine in order to build up support for its drug war. In 1986, Newsweek reported that crack was the biggest story since Vietnam/Watergate, while Time magazine said that crack was “the issue of the year.” Articles featured black “crack whores, crack babies, and gangbangers” simply reinforcing racial stereotypes of black women as irresponsible, selfish “welfare queens” and black men as “predators.” The media also began to use bogus claims that crack was “instantly addictive.” Between October 1988 and October 1989, the Washington Post ran 1,565 stories about crack cocaine and the drug scourge.

In 1986, with the media now eating out of the Reagan administration’s hand, the House passed legislation allowing the death penalty for some drug-related crimes. Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which included mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, and far more severe punishment for distribution for crack. Crack, of course, was (and still is) associated with blacks, while powder cocaine associated with whites. 

Congress then developed a NEW Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1988 – this one with even more dire consequences. Public housing authorities were able to evict any tenant who allowed any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises while eliminating many forms of federal benefits, including student loans for anyone convicted of a drug offense. The act also expanded the death penalty for drug related offenses and imposed new mandatory minimums for drug offenses, including a five year mandatory for possession of cocaine base – whether there was intent to sell or not. This penalty would also apply to first time offenders.

You can buy Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, here. Please read this book!


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