It’s no secret that the United States has a long history of institutional racism inside legislatures, police departments, and courtrooms that is still affecting us today. For decades, blacks have outnumbered whites inside of America’s prisons despite being a much smaller percentage of the overall population.
In 2017, blacks made up 12 percent of the general adult population, but were 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. On the other hand, whites made up 64 percent of the adult population but just 30 percent of prisoners. When it comes to Hispanics, they represent 16 percent of the U.S. adult population, but 23 percent of the prison population.
Over the past decade the gap between black and white inmates inside of America’s prisons has actually shrunk, but the incarceration rates for minorities are still much higher than for whites. So, why are so many African Americans incarcerated?
Antiquated drug laws are still on the books
Harsh drug laws in the United States first appeared back in the 1930s thanks to a man named Harry Anslinger. This man essentially created the war on drugs, but he didn’t necessarily have a hatred for substances and addiction. The man was a xenophobe and racist who had a hatred for Jazz culture, and he used the Federal Narcotics Bureau to lock up people of color.
Not only did he start the drug war, but he also planted the seeds for the prison industrial complex. Anslinger implemented the first rigorous drug laws and unreasonably long prison sentences, and he was in charge of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (the precursor to the DEA) for more than thirty years.
During that time, he implemented his racist views into federal drug policy, and Anslinger always conflated drug use, race, and music. He was able to do it thanks to complicit bigoted politicians who shared his white-washed vision for America.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he was quoted as saying. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
As Johann Hari explained in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs, Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. He viewed it as “musical anarchy,” and in internal memos he wrote that Jazz “sounded like the jungles in the dead of night.”
Anslinger was in charge of the Federal Narcotics Bureau until the Kennedy administration, but his ideas remained and were adopted by successive administrations. In 1971, President Nixon officially declared a war on drugs and he signed the Controlled Substances Act.
Two decades later, Nixon’s aide and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman revealed that Nixon’s drug war happened because he couldn’t make being black illegal.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … 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,” said Ehrlichman.
The racist drug policies continued in the 1980s with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign that fit nicely with the media hysteria about crack, which was associated with low-income African-Americans. And, Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill didn’t help the matter either.
Between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush the number of drug offenders in prisons increased twelvefold, and the mandatory-minimum sentencing laws based on the different substances disproportionately affected African-Americans. For example, sentences for crack were harsher than sentences for cocaine, which was associated with whites.
The harsh drug laws and sentences continue to this day at both the federal and state level, and it’s all thanks to Anslingler and Nixon.
It’s not just about drugs, it’s also about money
While it is a myth that there are more black men in prison than there are in college, it is a fact that blacks are still incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. And the problem isn’t just for adults, it is also affecting black children.
According to the NAACP, African American children represent 32 percent of children who are arrested, 42 percent of children who are detained, and 52 percent of children whose cases are adjudicated in criminal court.
If blacks and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, America’s prison population would decline by nearly 40 percent. But, all of these statistics aren’t just because of the war on drugs. The incarceration gap between blacks and whites is also driven by economic disparities.
Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, Nathaniel Lewis from the People’s Policy Project found that one’s class – not race – is the single greatest predictor of how likely someone is to end up in prison.
Jails and prisons are mostly filled with poor Americans. In 2014, 57 percent of men behind bars and 72 percent of women had incomes below $22,500 before they were locked up. While many were white, a disproportionate percentage was black and those individuals also have a higher recidivism rate than other races at 86.9%.
It’s crystal clear that as your income increases, you are dramatically less-likely to be incarcerated. As Mother Jones points out, black people are more likely to be impoverished or low income, which means they are more likely to land behind bars. The probability of a low-income black man being incarcerated is 52 percent, and for an upper-class black man it’s 14 percent.
The racial wealth gap is so severe in the United States, it would take more than two centuries for black families to catch up with the wealth of white families.
The conclusion of Lewis’ study was that if we want to reverse the rate of black incarceration, America must address the poverty issue and the racial wealth gap that puts black people in prison in the first place.
While ending the drug war and decriminalizing drugs would contribute to lowering the black incarceration rate, the most effective criminal justice reform might just be new policies aimed at closing the wealth gap.
Ron Stefanski is the creator of Prisoninsight.com, which is the #1 resource on the Internet to help inmate families and friends better navigate the prison system.