linguist and author of the book, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English."
If Barack Obama and the Democrats really wanted to re-arouse the coalition of voters that gave Obama the White House two years ago, all it would take is a single issue we aren’t hearing about amidst the earnest back-and-forths over health care, TARP and taxing small business.
That issue is the War on Drugs. That this decades-long policy has not made hard drugs any cheaper and siphons off resources from overtaxed police forces is bad enough. However, the War on Drugs is a tragedy for a more specific reason: it is the main thing keeping America from getting past race.
If the Obama Administration took this up, not only black America but a massive proportion of America’s moderates, liberals, and leftists would get behind it as well. The end of today’s version of Prohibition would be as galvanizing a selling point as, say, Obama’s blackness and coolness was. It would be revolutionary, again, and for real.
Ask almost any black person why they feel that America is still a deeply racist country, and what is on their minds is not abstractions such as black people getting slightly lesser car loans than white people, or subtle psychological tests that show whites more likely to associate blacks with negative concepts like laziness, and so on. What is key to making many blacks feel racism in America is the cops.
Quite simply, police forces are assigned to trawl low-income, high minority areas for drug sales, because this is where drug sales most often go on in the open air – along with the violence often in its wake. As a result, countless innocent people are stopped and frisked. To people living in such areas it feels like they are under siege by the police – I have heard innocent thirteen year old boys from the projects already complaining that they wish the cops would leave them alone.
Pretty soon you have a young man who thinks of the mainstream world as an alternate universe. Not to mention even successful black men recounting being stopped for “Driving While Black” and searched for drugs. Or a black Harvard professor like Henry Louis Gates overreacting to an encounter with the police out of a fear that he was being treated similarly.
Worse, because selling drugs is illegal, their street cost is high, there’s a potential living to be made out on “them corners.” No, most of the “slingers” do not get rich – but there is always the hope that one might, and it keeps the wolf from the door. The War on Drugs provides an ever-standing opportunity to make a living outside of the law with your friends. And when you’re growing up, it’s what you see every second man you know doing. When you do it too, you go to jail (or die), sometimes leaving kids behind who will grow up without a dad. With no War on Drugs, these same young black men would do exactly what we, their families, and deep down even they wish they would do: get real jobs.
Take away the War on Drugs and make drugs available for a reasonable amount in pharmacies. It would be the only way to keep the trade off the streets, just as alcohol is available for a reasonable amount in liquor stores (which sounded horrific to those who supported Prohibition). Divert the money now wasted on the War on Drugs to serious rehabilitation efforts. For the record, studies show that addiction rates do not rise when Prohibition laws are pulled back.
Prohibition really is the word – it is a blot on this nation that television shows like the current Boardwalk Empire, as well as hit books like Dry Manhattan and Last Call, have us smugly laughing at Prohibition in 1920s and yet we accept Prohibition 2010 as just the way it has to be. A month barely goes by in New York when there isn’t some seedy tragedy where a black or Latino teen or twenty-something is shot dead over what is almost always traceable to people maintaining turf for selling drugs. The shooters, if found, almost always have records – and the records are almost always connected to “them corners.” An end to the War on Drugs would profoundly change all of this.
Last I heard, Obama’s drug policy czar Gil Kerlikowske was saying of the War on Drugs “It’s not something the President and I discuss; it’s not even on the agenda.” Understandable – there’s quite a bit on the plate at present. Realistically we can’t even expect Obama to run on an anti-War on Drugs policy in 2012. However, imagine if he and his crew started pushing the point as of the midterm elections in 2014, and carried the effort through his second term.
There would be no problem with reanimating the excitement people felt watching Obama take the prize two falls ago. Pitched properly as a policy that is not only sensible but also eliminates what can feel like a war on black men, a commitment to ending the War on Drugs nationwide would give countless people the opportunity to participate in the revolution that so many are waiting for. Just Say No indeed.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at City Journal and The New Republic and is a lecturer at Columbia University. His latest book is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: Untold Stories in the History of English.