Racism, drugs, and mass incarceration


Emily Mong

The drug war disproportionately impacts people of color because of the police’s racial biases. Police are incentivized to arrest people for drug offenses because of what they’ll gain from it, inadvertently fueling violent crime and other more serious crimes.

Kaitlyn Luu, Staff Writer

Whether it’s explicitly said outright or implied through dog whistles, we’ve all been acquainted with the racist conceptualizations of Black and Latino Americans when it comes to drug abuse and general crime. These false stereotypes harm marginalized communities because of racially motivated suspicion and assumptions that are acted upon by the police.

People of color are subject to racial profiling by the police and in turn get imprisoned at a substantially higher rate for drug related crimes. 57% of incarcerated people in state prisons and 77% of incarcerated people in federal prisons for drug crimes are Black or Latino.

Despite the fact that minorities are statistically just as likely to possess and use drugs as other Americans, they are especially targeted by police because of ethnic and racial biases. Due to this disparity, people of color are disproportionately affected by “tough on crime” rhetoric that has been weaponized against them by the criminal justice system.

One way that the prison system dehumanizes felons is by stripping them of certain rights during and after serving time. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal justice system, but is also perpetuated by policies denying child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, licensing, student aid, public housing and other public assistance to people with criminal convictions.” Black and Latino communities are hit the hardest by these policies that were put in place to suppress their fundamental rights. Although it might just seem like a coincidence, this is really just another manifestation of people of color’s oppression.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has staked the country to a drug war that has cost trillions dollars, most of that money coming from the pockets of taxpayers. However, the prevalence of drug abuse in this country is not reflective of all the funding that is poured into drug control expenditures and proves these efforts to be ineffective in reducing violent crime.

The notion that drug abuse is a causation of violence has been debunked time and time again. According to a paper from the UALR Bowen Law Repository, “while the U.S. prison population has increased remarkably in the last three decades, the violent crime rates in the United States over approximately the same time period have decreased, and in some cases dramatically.” It is evident that the purpose of exterminating recreational drug use was never to bring peace and tranquility to this country. The people who enforce drug policies have an agenda that has nothing to do with upholding some sort of moral code, but rather a cause to subjugate people of color in a post-Jim Crow America.

Police and law enforcement are incentivized to arrest people for drug crimes “because they can obtain forfeitures of drug money, cars, boats, houses and other property used by the drug dealers,” according to a paper from the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal. “If they don’t steal this property, as corrupt police do, honest police will at least indirectly benefit from the forfeitures, since some of the forfeited property, if not all of it, can remain with the department.”

The focus on drug control has detracted from much more serious crimes such as homicide and rape. There is no reason why the vast majority of people in prison are incarcerated for drug offenses. Police departments benefit from being in a position of power at the expense of people’s livelihoods and well-being.

For decades, minorities have endured unnecessary suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system. Political activists have been speaking on this issue for years, and it’s about time things begin to change.

In 2020, Oregon made history by becoming the first U.S. state to decriminalize all drugs and provide health care facilities for addicts. There seems to have been a shift in how the public views drug possession and use, so it is very possible that other states will follow suit to combat the war on drugs. But in the meantime, providing adequate rehabilitation for addicts and public assistance will greatly help incarcerated individuals. There is no excuse for the endowment of basic human rights to exclude people with a criminal record.

Prison reforms and drug decriminalization are necessary steps we need to take if we are to make progress in liberating people of color from the manacles of institutional racism. The resounding consequences of slavery and segregation rippling through America will continue to oppress marginalized people until change is effected.