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Nixon Started the War on Drugs to Target Black People & the Antiwar Left

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2020

In 1971, Richard Nixon kicked off America’s “war on drugs”, focusing not on the societal problems that lead to drug abuse but on categorizing drug users as criminals.

In Nixon’s eyes, drug use was rampant in 1971 not because of grand social pressures that society had a duty to correct, but because drug users were law-breaking hedonists who deserved only discipline and punishment.

Over the next several decades, the US government (and particularly Ronald Reagan) took Nixon’s lead and imprisoned millions of people for drug offenses, including a disproportionate number of Black men. Michelle Alexander wrote about this in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow. From the about page:

Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.

In 1994, former Nixon aide and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman proudly told writer Dan Baum that racial control and discrimination was in fact the purpose of the war on drugs.

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “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.”

An astonishing thing to admit but hardly a rare tactic for the cynical Republican Party. See also how they decided to champion abortion as an issue to attract the support of white evangelical Christians and shifted from indifference to scientific denialism on climate change in order to oppose the Obama administration and advance the interests of wealthy donors.

Thanks to Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist for reminding me of Ehrlichman’s admission.