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White Lines and Black Incarceration: A Reexamination of the War on Drugs

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Originally Written in April 2021 They declared the war on drugs, like a war on terror

But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever..

..But thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits

'Cause free labor's the cornerstone of US economics

These lyrics from Killer Mike’s Reagan encapsulates what many African Americans experienced during the height of President Reagan’s escalation of the War on Drugs. Whether focusing on the criminal economy that provided for residents of inner cities during the deindustrialization of the 1980s, or charting the course of urban social policy that provided the Reagan administration the infrastructure for the mass incarceration of African Americans, scholars have reexamined the War on Drugs through extremely different lenses.

Two books specifically re-evaluate the War on Drugs while taking completely different

avenues. David Farber’s Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed

focuses on the history and the introduction of crack and its effects on inner city communities, culture, and criminal networks. While Farber does discuss law enforcement strategies and urban policy, it’s from the perspective of those living in these blighted urban communities rather than those pontificating from the corridors of power. Farber’s work is ultimately a very human story of those affected by the crack epidemic. Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America is the opposite perspective of Farber’s work. Concerning her more sterile analysis with politicians and policy experts, Hinton starts with Johnson’s War on Crime and how racist policy concerning the problem of black teenage delinquents evolved into aggressive militarized policing of urban communities during the War on Drugs. While both books analyze extremely different perspectives, while working in concert, they provide a thorough criminal and political background of the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

As stated beforehand, Farber’s Crack is a unique personal journey through the

underbelly of the crack epidemic. In Farber’s telling, a major issue he has with other academic works examining crack is that they “do not emphasize the deadly nature of the crack business model or the personal and community devastation of habitual crack use (1).” Instead, Farber faults these works with focusing far too much on policy rather than the people it affects (2). While Farber doesn’t call out Hinton by name, he criticizes several works that are similar to her thesis: the most popular being Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Farber refutes this approach by focusing his analysis on people, rather than policy.

One great example of this is in Farber’s introduction. At the very beginning of the book,

we are introduced to the crack epidemic through the eyes of a black man who was released from prison in the mid ‘80s after spending ten years in prison. Upon his return to South Side Chicago, he notices young men wearing expensive jewelry selling crack cocaine. While the “old head,” as Farber refers to him, knew exactly what was going on, he resisted both using and selling crack despite its allure and ease of access. Yet, the “old head” doesn’t judge the young men participating in the crack trade because “what the young ones did made cold, hard sense” in the deindustrialization of the inner cities during the 1980s (4).

Besides a human introduction into the crack epidemic, Farber shows he is also conscious

of larger drug trends and criminal networks operating in the narcotics trade. Farber recounts how the dismantling of the Mafia sponsored French Connection heroin smuggling network of the 1970s opened up the opportunity for Mexican smugglers to supply their own “Mexican Mud” heroin for distribution (5). It would be these same networks that were established in the wake of the French Connection that would allow South American drug cartels to distribute cocaine into the United States once heroin use became passe’ (6). Farber is aware of how the introduction of crack cocaine democratized the drug, and, unlike heroin, where you had to be involved in a more sophisticated network, any enterprising gang on the street could purchase cocaine and manufacture it into crack for a handsome profit (7). This ease of access led to increased competition on the streets and the outbreak of violence associated with the crack epidemic.

Farber’s awareness of the drug trade and the accessibility of the crack market leads him

to a different conclusion from Hinton over why the harsh punitive measures enacted by the Reagan administration were introduced. Instead of being the culmination of decades of racist policies, Faber says that “racism does not explain the motives of all those who fought the ravages of crack (8).” Farber goes on to explain that “Many African American leaders believed that only fierce measures could stop the street-corner violence and familial destruction crack had brought to their communities (9).” He is mindful of the street level suffering and violence that crack introduced into the inner city, and recognizes it was out of desperation that many African American leaders endorsed Reagan’s punitive drug policies, only realizing afterwards that the cure of mass incarceration was worse than the disease.

Farber also realizes that politicians were not working as a hive mind to defend their

position on top of any racial caste, like some academics claim, but were rather working with an “unconscious racism” while drafting these punitive measures (10). While their actions were undeniably detrimental to the black community, they were done out of a need to prove to their constituents they were tough on drug use. Farber says:

Politicians felt the public heat and knew that they needed to act. The 1986 midterm elections loomed, giving both political parties a powerful incentive to move quickly....Between 1986 and 1989 Democrats and Republicans engaged in a bidding war over crack policy in the United States. Black and white, liberal and conservative, a bevy of politicians at both the local and the national level fought to prove to the public that they were the most zealous soldiers in the latest iteration of the war on drugs...(11)

Ever conscious of the fickleness of drug trends, Farber ends his work with the idea that

people didn’t stop doing crack en masse because of any government program, but because kids that came of age during the epidemic saw the devastating effects it had on their families and communities (12). Instead of being “scared straight” into “saying no to drugs,” Farber informs us that other drugs, like “lean” and “purple drink,” instead became the choice of a new generation.

Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime examines a different side of the War on Drugs. Instead of personal stories or the history of criminal networks, Hinton is armed with over 30 years worth of presidential and congressional documentation along with a trove of multidisciplinary secondary works to support her thesis. Hinton’s work is less focused on the criminal supply side behind the War on Drugs and more on how a static set of racist ideas geared toward the African American community and criminality shaped public policy and crescendoed with aggressive urban policing and mass incarceration (13).

Unlike Farber’s work, which focuses on the damaging policy decisions of the Reagan

administration, Hinton asserts that the foundation of the bureaucracy that would evolve into the mass incarceration state was laid down during the apex of ‘60s liberalism by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Hinton begins her analysis with the Kennedy administration’s social programs geared for a “total attack” of the problem of urban juvenile delinquency, which would be adapted into Johnson’s War on Poverty (14). As the War on Poverty morphed into the War on Crime after a civil rights protest and social unrest in Harlem, familiar terms like “Law and Order” and “Stop and Frisk” entered the public lexicon (15). Hinton treads familiar water with Farber in that leaders of the African American community at first welcomed the government’s War on Crime and envisioned better “community control, oversight, and inclusion” in the development of these programs (16). Finding themselves excluded from a seat at the table, what they received instead was the expansion of armed police surveillance in low-income communities (17). This led to a militarization race with law enforcement, as groups like the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Action Movement called for armed self-defense against police brutality, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI implemented its notorious COINTELPRO domestic intelligence program to sabotage these organizations and increase surveillance on black communities (18).

Hinton’s analysis of law enforcement and public policy continues, like with Nixon’s federally funded prison construction and Carter’s surveillance of public housing, but climaxes with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Hinton says:

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he inherited the largest law enforcement system in the world, one that had been in development since the mid-1960s...the Reagan administration exacerbated the tendency within federal crime control programs to reinforce crime in the low-income African American communities that had been the main targets for punitive intervention, and as a result, the nation witnessed an explosion of urban violence and drug abuse...(19).

With this quote Hinton reinforces the idea that mass incarceration wasn’t exclusive to the Reagan’s administration’s War on Drugs, but rather, his administration had the benefit of a developed bureaucracy to enforce it. Hinton does cover some similar ground to Farber when discussing organized crime, but it’s strictly from a policy standpoint. Specifically, Hinton makes note that despite President Reagan’s promise to direct his war against major kingpins, it was mostly street level black and Latino men who were incarcerated (20). Hinton conveniently never defines who these “kingpins” are, but it would be safe to assume that leaders of the Mexican and Colombian cartels would fit that title. Hinton briefly covers the violence that the democratization of the crack trade brought to local black gangs, and how the enforced punitive action that started from Kennedy’s “total attack” on juvenile delinquency further militarized them: “gang members operated sophisticated crime networks and carried Uzis, Mac-10 machine guns, and semiautomatic rifles. The days of Molotov cocktails, fist fights, and Saturday Night Specials were of the previous period (21).”

With their own unique narratives and perspectives, both of the aforementioned works

explores and analyzes different aspects of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Whether focusing on the illicit economy that the crack trade established in urban communities, or how the policies of those in power ended up imprisoning at an alarming rate those that participated in it, both Farber and Hinton offer up fresh perspectives on a war that’s still being fought today.

Notes: 1. David Farber, Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 168.

2. Farber, Crack, 168.

3. Farber, Crack, 1-4.

4. Farber, Crack, 1-4.

5. Farber, Crack, 64.

6. Farber, Crack, 64.

7. Farber, Crack, 3.

8. Farber, Crack, 8.

9. Farber, Crack, 8.

10. Farber, Crack, 171. 11. Farber, Crack, 133.

12. Farber, Crack, 9.

13. Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 3-4.

14. Hinton, War on Poverty, 48.

15. Hinton, War on Poverty, 82.

16. Hinton, War on Poverty, 9.

17. Hinton, War on Poverty, 9.

18. Hinton, War on Poverty,111.

19. Hinton, War on Poverty, 307.

20. Hinton, War on Poverty, 317. 21. Hinton, War on Poverty, 322.

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