The war on drugs is racist. Donald Trump is embracing it with open arms

Drugs have long been used to scapegoat black and Latino people. With Jeff Sessions doing Trump’s bidding as Attorney General, things will only get worse

By Steven W. Thrasher / The Guardian / April 17, 2017


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.