When I first read the Washington Post story that the US attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, wants to “bring back” the “war on drugs”, I thought to myself: bring back? Where did it go? Is General Sessions himself on drugs? Because, despite a few modest reforms, somebody would have to be high to think the war on drugs has really gone away. But the framing of an impetus to “bring back” the drug war is the same as Donald Trump’s fantasy of making America “great again” and must be understood for exactly what it is: a white power grab to control black and brown people couched in the restoration of past glory.
Drugs have long been used to scapegoat black and Latino people, even as study after study finds that white youth use drugs more than their non-white peers and white people are the more likely to have contraband on them when stopped by police. As Trump plans a “deportation force”, a war on drugs amped up on raids will help create darker-skinned scapegoats as he rips immigrant communities apart.
General Sessions will lead this war for Trump. Standing on the US-Mexico border, General Sessions mischaracterized immigration as consisting of “criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens”. Evoking the same racialized sexual fear to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment that his boss did when he began his campaign by calling Mexican rapists, Sessions ignored that immigrants commit fewer crimes as he defiantly took a “stand against this filth”.
The war on drugs is itself a kind of opiate of the white masses, hustled and imbibed to stoke white people’s fear about people of color – even as there already about 1.5 million black men already disappeared from US society by early death or incarceration. If you don’t think nostalgia for the war on drugs and a desire to reboot it isn’t racist, consider the “hillbilly elegy” love affair American politics, culture and media has been indulging regarding white people addicted to opioids lately.
Many rural counties hit hardest by the opioid epidemic voted for a man whose budget and failed healthcare plan would harm people like them. These sites of drug addiction are the subjects of public sympathy and are less likely to be battlefields in the war on drugs than cities and border towns. That’s because, when “a drug epidemic’s victims are white”, even conservative politicians tell us to understand these people, to feel compassion for them and to see their addictions as public health, not carceral, matters, in the context of deindustrialization.
We never heard any messages like that from American politicians or media during the drug epidemics of the 1980s, which rocked black America. Drugs were seen as moral failings which needed to be violently policed – and the economics of addiction were imagined as disconnected from deindustrialization, poverty or unemployment.
This is what Sessions wants to “bring back”. That’s not because he thinks it would help black or brown America or even poor white America. Rather, the intention is to subdue the illogical fears of white America (which is Trump’s base and perhaps the only major demographic in America which approves of him) that most black and Hispanic men are rapists and thieves just waiting to harm, kill and rob them.
Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, has no moral authority to clamp down on “law and order” in the first place, as he absurdly had to recuse himself from investigating the president’s ties to Russia after he told Congress under oath that he himself had had no contact with Russian officials. (He did.)
But hypocrisy is no more foreign to General Sessions than is attacking the rights of people of color. Coretta Scott King wrote a 10-page letter to help, successfully, keep him from getting a judgeship in 1986. Sessions hounded people for trying to expand the black vote decades ago – just as he dropped the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against onerous voting burdens in Texas, and is considering letting cities whose police departments have engaged in well-documented racial violence out of federal oversight. (Fortunately, at least in Baltimore, a judge is not allowing this.)
General Sessions is reportedly “eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and 90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration”. This is unethical, considering Sessions himself recently admitted that crime is at near historic lows.
The General’s approach flies in the face of humane reforms that Barack Obama made (such as pardoning non-violent drug offenders and calling for the end of mandatory minimum sentences) and is counter to even more recent criminal justice reforms, such as New York City’s plan to close its notorious Riker’s Island jail and New York State’s decision to raise the age of juveniles charged with crimes from 16 to 18.
But it’s not hard to understand if you know that racism rarely gets better in America, its means just evolve – and a prime means of racial control is incarceration. The war on drugs has continued an overincarceration of black people which began after the civil war. This war has made it so that, for example, nearly 90% of NYPD arrests for marijuana have been of young black and Latino men.
The war made it so that crack cocaine (more associated with black American drug use) is punished much more harshly than powder cocaine (more associated with white America). Bipartisan legislation which sought to end this disparity is opposed by General Sessions and Trump.
A friend of mine predicted that many of Trump’s voters were in on his con all along: that they knew he wasn’t a successful businessman, a Christian moralist or a bona fide conservative. What he was, however, was a strongman willing to enact their revenge.
By railing against the “inner cities” and holding steadfast to his belief that the Central Park 5 were guilty – even after DNA evidence exonerated them – Trump signalled he would clean up after a black president and put black and brown people in their place.
General Sessions is the henchman he has dispatched to the frontlines of this task, using the war on drugs as his battering ram.
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