After President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, the number of people incarcerated in American jails and prisons escalated from 300,000 to 2.3 million. Half of those in federal prison are incarcerated for a drug offense, and two-thirds of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color. Disproportionate arrest, conviction, and sentencing rates for drug offenses have devastated communities of color in America.
Between 1980 and 2011, arrests of African Americans for violent and property crimes fell, but rose dramatically for drug offenses. As the Washington Post reported, African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs than whites, even though whites use drugs at the same rate and are more likely to sell drugs.
In a new article for Harper’s magazine, journalist Dan Baum reports that President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, admitted that the war on drugs was designed to have precisely this impact on the Black community.
In a 1994 interview, Mr. Ehrlichman said, “You want to know what this was really all about?” He went on:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
President Nixon’s creation of a war on drugs to criminalize Black people amplified the presumption of guilt assigned to Black people since slavery and entrenched the racialization of criminality that began in earnest with lynching.
The Nixon Administration’s strategy of using drugs to “vilify [African Americans] night after night on the evening news” fostered a politics of fear and anger that reached frenzied heights in the 1990s. Sensationalist media accounts of “soaring” crime rates in the 1980s and early 1990s combined with extraordinary resentment about rehabilitation programs within prisons to create a political environment in which every elected official sought to be “tough on crime.” Decrying that “[g]angs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools,” President Bill Clinton in 1994 signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, allotting $12.5 billion to states to increase incarceration.
Congress has recently taken steps to reduce disparities in drug sentencing laws, and is considering important reforms that would begin to address the campaign of racialized mass incarceration launched by the Nixon Administration more than four decades ago.