The New Jim Crow (2010) unveils an appalling system of discrimination in the United States that has led to the unprecedented mass incarceration of African-Americans. The so-called War on Drugs, under the jurisdiction of an ostensibly colorblind justice system, has only perpetuated the problem through unconscious racial bias in judgments and sentencing.
Let’s start our story with two eye-opening facts.
First, the United States maintains the highest incarceration rate in the world, some eight times higher than Germany’s.
And second, from 1980 to 2000, the number of incarcerated people soared, from 300,000 to 2 million.
What’s more, the vast majority of those imprisoned were people of color.
How did this happen?
Initially, it began in the 1970s, with Richard Nixon's strategy of playing on existing racial division to gain an electoral advantage. However it really took hold when the Reagan Administration declared a war on drugs in 1982. Although the initiative was framed as a drug war, it had far more to do with race than anything else.
At the time, a “war” on drugs came somewhat as a surprise, as only two percent of Americans believed that illegal drugs represented the country’s most urgent political issue.
So what motivated the drug war? It had to do with the concerns of poor, rural whites, who both resented progress in black civil rights and solidly supported Reagan’s law-and-order policy.
In this political context, the Reagan administration launched a major media campaign and started pumping money into drug law enforcement.
The whole enterprise was generously financed. Between 1981 and 1991, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spending to address illegal drugs soared from $33 million to $1.42 billion.
It’s worth noting that when the drug war was launched, even conservatives in Reagan’s own party were skeptical. But this changed in 1985, when crack cocaine appeared in poor, black neighborhoods, leading to a major spike in violence and drug use.
For the Reagan administration, crack cocaine and the violence it inspired was a convenient way to justify a war on drugs.
Accordingly, the DEA ramped up its public awareness efforts, drawing attention to the “new” crack problem. Soon enough, the media jumped on the bandwagon too, playing up the characterizations, not without racial subtext, of black “crack whores” and “crack babies” in the public imagination.