Originally published on Race-Talk, a project of the Kirwan Institute. By Elizabeth Renter on October 21, 2010 at 11:00 am
When the head of the California division of the NAACP spoke out in support of that state’s Proposition 19 this summer, there seemed to be an equal amount of immediate praise and backlash. Alice Huffman labeled the drug war as a “civil rights issue” getting attention both on a state and national level and once again bringing the War on Drugs front and center in the national dialogue on race. Treading on unbroken ground in regards to the NAACP and calling on the legalization of marijuana, Huffman has used her position of influence and power to highlight what many have known for ages—that the War on Drugs is not a war on the powerful and wealthy criminal enterprises that are responsible for bringing drugs into the neighborhoods and lives of the people. Instead, it’s far too often a war on people of color.
Let me step back a moment to say that drug addiction is a serious problem, as are the crimes that arise as a result of addiction and drug culture. But, we as a country are not treating addiction as the health problem that it is. Instead we are treating people caught with small amounts of drugs in the same manner that we do those who are ultimately responsible for pushing and trafficking the drugs—as criminals. This largely ineffective approach has destroyed families and communities and it’s often racial minorities who end up suffering the brunt of the burden.
The War on Drugs didn’t start just twenty or thirty years ago as many people believe, though that’s when the blitzkrieg of mass incarceration began. It initially began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as opium gained relatively widespread popularity in the United States. Though the country has never seen an opium problem equal to the one that took hold back then, affecting citizens from all walks of life, its ultimate undoing had little to do with the dangers of addiction and more to do with racism and immigration issues. Ill will towards Chinese immigrants following their building of the railroad was what helped spur opium legislation. Campaigns showing Asian immigrants as the cause for opium problems created a “us vs. them” mentality and injected a racial agenda into the drug problem.
Continue reading at Race-Talk.