Contrary to public opinion, white people in the United States account for more arrests for drug use than do people of color. Yet, there are widely-held and erroneous beliefs that 1) most drug crimes are committed by people of color, and 2) most people of color commit drug crimes that result in the disproportionate imprisonment of non-whites. How did America become come to target people of color for the so-called “war on drugs”?
Most Americans have no idea that drugs such as opiates, cocaine, and marijuana were not always illegal in the United States. In fact, in the early 1900s, many wealthy people commonly used such drugs recreationally, peaking with 250,000 American addicts among the nation’s 76 million citizens.
During the 20th century, while some Americans were addicted because of doctor-issued prescriptions drug used by the wealthy whites was considered a medical problem. For others, addictive drugs were considered chic. So much so that Congress enacted the first Food and Drug Safety Act in 1906, requiring drug companies list contents in drugs on their labels. Accordingly, largely due to economic status, the rich were given rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
By 1909, the phrase “war on drugs” was first used, and it targeted Chinese, African-American and Mexican people as drug users. California passed laws prohibiting smokable opium as people of color were perceived as the “problem.” For example, Chinese immigrants became the face of opium use, despite their low percentage of California’s population. The result came in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As would be the case with other people of color later in America’s history “respectable White women” were thought to be corrupted by Chinese, leading to loose sexual habits. In 1902, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit of the American Pharmaceutical Association declared: “If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope, we can get along without him.” Truth be told, competition for cheap labor by Mexicans influenced the discrimination toward Chinese.
Similarly, African Americans were — and are today — the primary target of discriminatory drug laws. In 1910, Dr. Hamilton Wright, considered by many as the father of American anti-narcotics laws, reported that white employers gave Black workers cocaine as a stimulant for harder work. The New York Times published a story on Feb. 11, 1914, alleging “most of the attacks upon White women are the direct result of the ‘cocaine-crazed’ Negro brain … Negro cocaine fiends are now a known Southern menace.” Therefore, several southern police departments switched to .38 caliber bullets to be more of a lethal deterrent against African-American males.
For Mexicans living in America, the pattern of blaming people of color for drug use continued. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress to target Mexican Americans. As competitors for agricultural jobs sought by poor whites, Mexicans were blamed for marijuana-induced violence against white people.
By the 1980s, Congress had passed mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people. Legislators who supported such laws argued that they would target high-level drug offenders. Instead, drug kingpins were allowed to plea bargain down their sentences and small time drug possessors went to jail for longer periods.
Today, America jails more of its citizens than any other industrial nation, an overwhelming majority of whom are African-American and Latino. In fact, Latino children are three times as likely to have a parent in prison than white children. Similarly, African-American children are nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children.
As Congress has historically passed legislation to target people of color for drug use it should now legislate penalties against over-zealous police, prosecutors and judges who racially discriminate. Further, rehabilitation should replace incarceration. America should practice what it preaches.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc.