What if They Were Drugs? The War on Black People

My emotions work more like a slow boil than an explosion. In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, my analysis of racism on Monday was my honest, if somewhat dispassionate, opinion of where we are as a country, and it helped me piece together some of my thoughts. I stand by it, even as I have several detractors. With that out of the way, though, now I’m mad.

George Zimmerman stalked and killed Trayvon Martin for carrying a bag of Skittles. He picked up on a variety of identifiers and thought, “This kid might have drugs!”

So. Damn. What.

What if they were drugs? Would that have been worth apprehending the kid, much less shooting him? Would the world have ended if he had taken a hit of weed, or even — gasp — sold it to someone else?

I don’t own a cable subscription, and most of my reading comes from sources other than major news syndicates, so I could be missing something here, but the drug issue seems almost entirely overlooked amid sensationalism about how stupid the jurors are, what it means to stand your ground, and the specifics of a horribly injust but far-from-newsworthy trial — can anyone say “exploiting tragedy for ratings?” The band Tool already indicted us back in 2006 with their song “Vicarious,” which might well serve as the theme song for this and every trial that makes the rounds in the news media (“Vicariously I/ Live while the whole world dies/ Much better you than I”).

If the media had tried to see what was really going on here rather than make a cash grab at the expense of someone’s life, we would have seen this issue come up already. Yet, a Google search for “trayvon martin war on drugs” yielded a dearth of articles from respectable websites suggesting any sort of connection between the two. The best I found is here, with a grand total of six comments. Are we really so blind? It’s quite obvious that the war on drugs has crippled poor communities, and our fear of drug culture undergirds pretty much every conceivable way I can think of to profile a black man or even a lower-class white man.

Here’s the thing: drug culture presents real problems, like increased crime, cyclical poverty, and low high school graduation rates. But, as a strong proponent of postmodern virtue theory, I believe virtue stems from the community, and when you tear apart a community by throwing their loved ones in jail (or shooting them in this case) because you suspect they have a drug that isn’t alcohol or caffeine — having a recreational drug is an upstanding white man’s privilege, you know — you destroy any hope of virtue. There is nothing to strive for except survival from day to day. There is no goal, no discernable telos as we virtue theorists like to say. Virtue in a society fighting to survive in spite of the authorities is this: stay low, avoid the cops, do what you must to eat, find money however it comes.

Historically, the pieces fit together like a fish hook into the open eye of the black community. What we traditionally know as racism — Jim Crow laws, segregated public spaces, open insults to a person simply based on race — has, I continue to argue, dropped to about as low a level as it will ever get. Optimistic though I would like to be, I see no more possible major cultural shifts on the near horizon that will end direct, “first-order” racism as I called it on Monday (I would love for someone to correct me on this, though). However, both institutionalized and unspoken first-order racism sufficiently damaged minority groups so as to force many of them into poverty, and that didn’t magically lift with MLK.

My understanding of what transpired over the course of the 20th century with regard to race and drug prohibition is as such: Jim Crow laws and overt racism forced minorities, particularly blacks, into poverty. Racist vice lords/mafia bosses targeted black communities, capitalizing on their poverty and desperation in order to manipulate and/or coerce them into selling drugs. After we allegedly defeated Jim Crow in the 60’s, there was less than a generation between that time and when we ramped up our incarceration rates (see the Wikipedia page) thanks to the war on drugs. Who do you guess that affected? The racism was still there, hidden behind layers of misdirection and white indignation toward drugs, the politically-constructed Great Satan.

This higher-order racism managed to abstract itself away from first-order racism in order to implement a functional equivalent. It is difficult to say what the real motives here were (EDIT: it was racism. Click through to my post on Jerry Falwell). It could have been an intentional move to enforce racism. It could have been an opportunistic and unthinking (or calculated) move to vanquish a perceived great moral evil for political gain. It may even have been a criminally-funded means to keep minorities locked into poverty in order to serve as the slaves of the vice lords. Honestly, I don’t know.

What I know is this: the way we have turned the poor not only into the poor but into vicious criminals through the war on drugs is the single worst act of oppression we currently face. Say what you want about drugs. I could go on a long tangent discussing why drugs are medical and social problems, not criminal problems, but that’s really not the point here. The war on drugs is functional racism, no matter whether the sentiments attached to it are directly racist.

I’ll say it again, in case I wasn’t clear: the war on drugs is racism.

To the Christians reading this: your moral squeamishness about drugs and your love affair with conservative politics killed Trayvon Martin and threw millions more in jail, if it didn’t outright kill them, too. It perpetuates poverty in minority communities. It drives gang culture. And so on and so forth.

I understand that many people have good intentions in supporting our legal stance against drugs, but count the cost. Sure, drugs can ruin lives — but five years of incarceration (minimum) with a permanent felony record will ruin lives much worse than any sort of addiction.

There is blood on our hands — real blood, not abstract moral guilt. No manner of white guilt and not looking over our shoulders at black people will fix these problems, because we have institutionalized their criminality, setting the poor and the minorities against the government in an endless adversarial relationship. We have to end this now, before incidents like Trayvon become the norm.

Oh wait, they already are. The war on drugs is the war on black people, with Martin as one of many casualties.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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5 Responses to What if They Were Drugs? The War on Black People

  1. Kyle Walker says:

    Chris you raise worthy points in that article. I also think that Pro-life advocacy is a war related very much to what you are talking about. So is the War on Terror. Every time I go to the airport and see the TSA “express line” I am reaffirmed in the fact if you are privileged, you are immune from accountability. I could keep going. You are right. And it is bigger even than drugs.

    • Indeed. As we discussed on Facebook, one could write similar articles for other major institutionalized prejudices. The two which stick out to me are the wars on illegal immigration and terror, which you noted. I don’t think they are quite as damaging as the war on drugs, but they are close.

  2. Marta Layton says:

    You have a very good point here, one I’ve been going on about for some time. (The columnist Leonard Pitts is probably the mainstream journalist that opened my eyes to this problem.) I’d add that the way we treat paroled criminals and even after their parole is completed is a *huge* part of the problem. If you have a criminal record or even if you were arrested or are related to enough convicted criminals, you’re barred from anything beyond entry-level work in the kinds of jobs available in poor neighborhoods. One example: a friend on FB mentioned how his local Dominos had fired a teen/young adult who’d worked there for three years, but was fired when he applied for assistant management and failed the background check. This young man’s record was clean, but his brother had been arrested for selling drugs. Apparently this is standard operating procedure at chain restaurants.

    My point is that the way we handle our criminals even after jail frustrates a good, virtuous life trajectory. There is no way to improve, no benefit to being virtuous, none of the necessary connection between virtue and the good life + human happiness you see in Aristotle’s Nic Ethics Bk I. I think that’s a big part of the picture, too, or should be.

    • In technical terms, our economy and criminal justice system is all kinds of whack. It seems to make it almost impossible for people to get ahead if they’re not part of WASP culture. I just don’t see any practical solution: the two-party system essentially precludes real dialog or reform. I hate to despair, but I don’t know what we can do.

  3. Pingback: Starting a War: Racism in Falwell’s Fight Against Drugs | The Discerning Christian

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