After the Civil War, Washington, D.C., became a model Jim Crow city for the United States. Having supposedly waged the war for the purpose of ending slavery, U.S. officials proceeded to keep the nation’s capital city segregated all the way through the 1950s.
U.S. officials like to point to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as evidence of how enlightened they ultimately became when it came to the mistreatment and abuse of black Americans.
But does human nature really change that rapidly?
After all, not long after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted, federal officials began waging their much-vaunted war on drugs, one of the most racist federal programs in U.S. history.
Moreover, knowing full well the racist aspects and consequences of the war on drugs, federal officials living today continue to wage the drug war more fiercely than ever.
In some ways, the drug war is more brutal toward blacks than segregation was. With the drug war, bigoted cops can target blacks for abuse and mistreatment and there’s no social stigma attached to it. It’s all “legitimate” because it’s all part of “eradicating the scourge of drugs from our society.”
Moreover, what better way to remove blacks from society than by putting them in jail? With segregation, bigots still had to encounter blacks within the community. With the drug war, the bigots can remove them entirely from society by carting them off to jail to serve long sentences, where no one but prison officials and other prisoners will see them.
Moreover, the beauty of the drug war, insofar as bigots are concerned, is that it provides a means by which blacks can be denied the right to vote — you know, the same right that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was designed to protect. All they have to do is convict blacks of felony possession of drugs and voila! – no more right to vote, forever.
A felony drug conviction also enables bigots to disarm blacks, given that a felony conviction means that the felon can no longer own firearms. That’s obviously not as good as a law that expressly prohibits blacks from owning firearms but it’s a close second.
In the early years of the drug war, bigots could justify the drug war with good intentions. “We just want to end the war on drugs,” federal officials proclaimed. “We just want to eradicate drugs from our society. Our intentions are entirely honorable.”
Several decades later, however, those good intentions have been buried under a mountain of failure, death, destruction, and corruption, not only here in the United States but also within Latin America.
So, why do federal officials persist in waging the war on drugs, given its manifest failure and destructiveness and the reality that it will never succeed in attaining its goal?
Two big reasons are money and power. The drug war brings big money and big power to government officials, at the state, local, and, of course, federal levels.
But a third big reason is undoubtedly the same force that drove federal officials to embrace Jim Crow and segregation in Washington, D.C., after the end of the Civil War and to continue such racist policies well into the next century: Plain old-fashioned racial bigotry, all wrapped up in pretty drug-war rationales.
To learn more about the racism of the federal government’s war on drugs, read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
Or read this New York Times review of the book.
Or read this ACLU article: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow” by Graham Boyd.