McWhorter: end the drug war and racial tension evaporates

John McWhorter

John McWhorter is a conservative African-American who enjoys needling white liberals and the “racism-is-still-real” brand of civil rights advocacy.  For over a year now McWhorter’s take on race has taken on a decidedly libertarian tone.  He’s for legalizing drugs; all of them.

The Cato Institute’s current newsletter contains a PDF version of McWhorter’s new message.  The version I have pasted below appeared last year in The New Republic.

If you are a fan of HBO’s The Wire (the best television of all time in my opinion), the essential features of McWhorter’s argument will come as no surprise.  African-American youth have little incentive to look for conventional work because drug money comes so easy.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of black males are doing time on drug charges, inner city street gangs slaughter one another in turf battles, black children have no fathers, black women give up on finding a marriage partner, and everything goes to hell.

McWhorter doesn’t want to talk about the historical roots of the war on drugs; he just says it is a bad idea that needs to end.

If drugs were legalized and the war on drugs came to a screeching halt, young men on the street corners would no longer be drawn to the drug trade.  You can only make money selling street drugs because prohibition jacks up the price.  The same principle played out during the Prohibition era and for the same reasons.  End Prohibition and Al Capone and his ilk are out of business.  In other words, McWhorter accepts the standard libertarian argument for ending the drug war. 

Largely for aesthetic reasons, I have never been fussy about legalizing drugs–the idea gives me the creeps.  But the logic of the argument is irrefutable.

But McWhorter isn’t just another Libertarian using free market principles to sell drug legalization.  He wants to end the drug war so black people will stop complaining about racism.  Black males, he believes, mistrust authority because they mistrust the police; and they mistrust the police because the drug war and mass incarceration are destroying the black community.  End the drug war, McWhorter says, and black people will lose their only legitimate reason for complaining about unfairness.  In short, it’s not about racism; it’s about prohibition.  The drug war doesn’t damage black people because white people are bigots; the drug war damages black people because it’s flawed public policy.

I have a few quibbles with this argument.  Legalizing drugs won’t bring radical change so long as ex-offenders are barred from the workplace and the short-term assistance of the social safety net.  True, Darnell is more likely to find a conventional job if there is no profit in the drug trade; but what if nobody is hiring in his neighborhood?  As things stand, there are more workers than jobs out there.  When the music stops, a lot of people won’t be able to find a chair.  The war on drugs is America’s answer to our musical chairs problem.  What do we do with surplus labor, drug addicts and the mentally ill?  We incarcerate them.  If we stop using prison as the single cure for all our ills, we’ve got to come up with a plan B.  This is the fatal flaw in the libertarian and the small-government conservative game plan.

Secondly, would racism disappear as a major concern if the war on drugs ended tomorrow?

Probably not, but the practical impact of racial bias would be lessened considerably.  In addition, as McWhorter suggests, since the early 1980s, white racial resentment has been fueled by aggressively marketed cultural achetypes: drug dealers, snarling rappers, and kids dying over a pair of running shoes.  To the extent these stereotypical images recede into the past, racism will diminish.  How much, we can’t know.  White racism and the war on drugs are a chicken-and-egg phenomenon; eliminate the drug war and the major source of black hostility and white racial resentment will disappear.  I get that.  But if the economic picture in the hood remains bleak, all bets are off.

Please check out the article below or the Cato Institute version and tell us what you think.  Alan Bean

Getting Darnell Off the Corners: An America On the Rise Will Ride the Anti-Drug-War Wave

John McWhorter

It’s one thing that the United States will soon be taking orders from China (or already is). But what about when we’re becoming less forward-thinking than England? That’s the only possible reading of the fact that there, the former top drug official Bob Ainsworth has addressed the House of Commons and argued for the legalization of all drugs. Not just pot—all of them. His reasoning is simple, and has nothing to do with the ideology of Timothy Leary:

“We need to take effective measures to rob the dealers of their markets and the only way that we can do that is by supplying addicts through the medical profession, through prescription. We cannot afford to be shy about being prepared to do that.”

He continues: “We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.”

The perfect sense in this is painfully clear when uttered by someone from elsewhere—the English accent would make it sound even more authoritative to American ears. And yet to propose this here is seen as nervy, as “worth discussing” (which is a way of saying that it isn’t). Even when it is intoned in a black accent, as you can sample here, where Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s Neill Franklin speaks the truth on this issue regarding his work in Maryland.

This should change, as I have argued frequently over the past year (listen to part of a speech I did on this here). Of the countless reasons why this revival of this Prohibition that looks so quaint in Boardwalk Empire should be erased with all deliberate speed, one is that with no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on, which is why I am devoting my last TNR post of 2010 to the issue. The black malaise in the U.S. is currently like a card house; the Drug War is a single card which, if pulled out, would collapse the whole thing.

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.

There would be a new black community in which all able-bodied men had legal work even in less well-off communities—i.e. what even poor black America was like before the ’70s; this is no fantasy. Those who say that this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods would be, again, wrong. That explanation for black poverty is full of holes. Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception.

And in this new black community, young black men, much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence—and thus stay in the lives of their children. The black male community would no longer include a massive segment of underskilled, drug-addicted ex-cons churning in and out by the thousands year after year, and thus black boys growing up in these communities would not see this life as a norm. They would grow up to get jobs, period.

And something else these boys would not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police—and thus whites—as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood.

Before long, the sense of blacks as America’s eternal poster children—generated from within the black community as well as from without—would fade away. Think about it.

No more ritualistic “forums” held by people like Tavis Smiley and MSNBC articulately reinforcing the notion that to be black is to have no meaningful control over one’s fate. After last winter I have refrained from participating in any more of these; they miss the point, which is the War on Drugs. A person or two points out that America Remains a Racist Country and is applauded. The panelists who have urged the black community to look inward are considered to have “made some good points” as well. But the general impression is of a draw, which sparks no decisive, universal commitment to work in one direction. Nothing changes.

No more episodes like Henry Louis Gates supposing that an encounter with a policeman on his front porch might be about race. His suspicion made sense in the light of blacks’ relations with police forces under Prohibition, but those relations would be vastly different post-Prohibition. Ever wonder when that “next” beer summit was going to be? The reason there hasn’t been one is that there would be nothing more to talk about—unless the topic was, yes, ending the War on Drugs.

And no more books with titles like—I just cherry-picked this one—Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men or The New Jim Crow (that one chosen deliberately as a particularly hot title of the past year). Eliminating the War on Drugs would pull the rug out from under all of this. If there were no reason for the police to hunt people carrying or selling drugs, then there would be vastly less reason for such a concentration on black neighborhoods or black people in law enforcement.

It’s about Darnell. No, he’s not a “stereotype”; he’s a perfectly normal person who worries all people concerned with black community issues. Darnell’s brother Eugene fixes heaters and air conditioners. He was never a great student but he had a way of sticking to things. Darnell happened not to be, really. He didn’t like school either—especially since the one he went to was the kind where it was hard to learn much of anything. He liked his friends. And a lot of them stopped going to school after ninth or tenth grade. After a while, he stopped seeing why he shouldn’t hang out with them during the day, instead of missing sitting in classrooms not learning much.

Now, one thing Darnell could do is get his GED, and meanwhile get a job stocking shelves at Staples. Or working at a shoe store or supermarket. He could get vocational training of some kind, with a small loan it wouldn’t be hard to get. But that’s not what a lot of his friends do. The way they make money is by selling drugs.

Of course nobody calls it that. No one walks up to Darnell and says “Would you like to help us sell drugs on the street to make a living?” It goes by euphemisms—“out on dem corners” and so on. There is a quiet community norm: Young men who drop out of school and do not take jobs, because they can keep money in their pockets by selling drugs on the street. Hardly all young men do this in the community. Most don’t, in fact. But many do—enough that to Darnell, there is nothing unusual about it.

He sees people going to prison for this: But that’s seen as a badge of manhood. He even sees people getting killed—but let’s face it: Just like most men don’t deal drugs, most men in these communities do not get killed. To Darnell this looks like collateral damage of a kind he has a hard time imagining happening to him. Plus, he has less of a sense of a meaningful future than most people reading this can imagine. He has possibly never been outside of his city. He barely knows anyone who gets married. As is well documented, Darnells can be starkly casual about the possibility of not living past 25.

Of the options open to him for having money in his pocket, the most attractive one is the one that gives him the most flexible schedule, allows him to be with his favorite people, and lends him an air of the soldier besides. The question is not why he would choose to sell drugs, but why he wouldn’t.

Darnell is not on the corners because it’s all society prepared him for: That is a melodramatic, antiempirical, leftist cliche. Eugene’s doing fine and the community has as many Eugenes as Darnells. Darnell had choice. His choice makes perfect sense for someone like him, where he lives, having had the only life he knew.

Say that Darnell’s mother needs to control him and you’re saying nothing will change. What, precisely, would you counsel his mother to say? And do you think she hasn’t? Can you genuinely imagine that she can determine how Darnell is going to spend his life via the enunciation of some sentences? Hasn’t it always been considered a prime challenge of parenting that children tend not to heed parental advice?

Notice, though, that Darnell is a perfectly rational, normal human being. Just as I am not describing a choiceless victim of “institutional racism,” I am not describing a monster or a wastrel. What we need is not a forum where people clap at zestily-enunciated lines about “responsibility.” We need simply to imagine a day when a Jevon thinks about dropping out of school and selling drugs and realizes that he can’t do that because drugs are available for low prices at Rite-Aid and CVS.

He’d stay in school. Watch. And this is a prime reason the War on Drugs must end. It tears poor black communities to pieces. Not only by flooding them with police—but by encouraging bright young black people to work the black market and lending it an air of heroism.

This is not about being libertarian. This is not about me trying to redeem myself with people under the impression that I am a Republican. This is not about Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. This is about making black lives better—and via that, making America better. We should heed the Neill Franklins and Bob Ainsworths among us and take meaningful action. All year I have noticed a quiet groundswell in this direction; I hope it continues.

3 thoughts on “McWhorter: end the drug war and racial tension evaporates

  1. I agree that legalizing pot for adults would ease the problem but not the more dangerous and addicting drugs. For these drugs education, counseling and rehab would be a better choices than prison.

    In an article on the front page of The Miami Herald by Lydia Martin and Fred Tasker on June 4, 2007 titled “Got Pot?” Several graphs accompany the article one of which reveals that approximately 2 million Americans admitted to smoking pot in 2005. Later in the article after making the point that pot smoking cuts across social, generational, and racial boundaries they write; “The FBI says 786,500 people were arrested for it in 2005, the latest figures available.” Later on they write; “In Florida, possession of 20 grams or less—28 grams would be an ounce—is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and/or $1,000 fine; having more than 20 grams is a felony worth five years and/or a $5,000 fine.”

    Five years for 20 grams of pot! Well I can remember when 25 years was common during the 1960’s but haven’t we learned a lot since then?

    Here are some of the findings of Joseph A. Califano, Jr. in his book titled “High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It”.

    After 15 years of research the outspoken former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare reveals that:
    • Americans, comprising only four percent of the world’s
    population, consume two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs.
    • Nearly a quarter of the nation’s college students meet the
    clinical criteria for alcohol and drug abuse and addiction.
    • Every American child will be offered illegal drugs before
    graduating from high school, most on several occasions.

    It is easy to see how such figures on substance abuse could hold the potential to affect every family in America. Many of the nation’s social problems can be linked to substance abuse and our prisons are already filled to the brim as a result. Substance abuse within the family results in:

    1) Domestic violence.
    2) Child abuse.
    3) Teen pregnancy.
    4) Family breakup.

    All of the above lead to poverty which leads to crime which leads to jail time.

    Then there are the broader issues of the community as well which result in increases in:

    1) Property crimes as addicts seek to support drug habits.
    2) Soaring health care costs due to contagious diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis caused by intravenous drug use.
    3) Outsourcing of jobs due to the lower productivity of our work force.

    You write: “McWhorter suggests, since the early 1980s, white racial resentment has been fueled by aggressively marketed cultural achetypes: drug dealers, snarling rappers, and kids dying over a pair of running shoes.
    To the extent these stereotypical images recede into the past, racism will diminish.”

    Of course politicians find a way to benefit by such images as they attempt to build a tough on crime reputation. (Many of these politicians are people of color.) An inner-city population tightly confined in a very visible urban setting near media hubs are great places to construct such an image. Do rural white drug addicts spread out over a large area not covered by main stream media represent a more difficult target for the political opportunist? Are the budgets and resources greater in large metro areas than rural towns to attack such problems? Are there more potential victims in the city or country? So I must ask is it really racism or convenience that makes the police target the inner-city populations?

    It is good that McWhorter recognizes the power of aggressively marketed cultural achetyes” because I believe this is true for blacks as well.

    You write, “Black males, he believes, mistrust authority because they mistrust the police; and they mistrust the police because the drug war and mass incarceration are destroying the black community.”

    I agree blacks tend to mistrust the police because of mass incarceration which has devastated black communities. And many well meaning social activists preach this is due to white racism. This chicken and egg problem as you write is not solely a white thing it is also a black thing. Blacks focus on a mythical white plot to incarcerate them out of existence. Whom are the conspirators in this plot? If there is a plot follow the money. I bet it leads to a multiracial group of business and union leaders not your average white person. Oh whites are guilty of being unaware of the truth but when people are stopped and asked questions on the street that would seem obvious to many too many of these people still get them wrong? This ignorance and our eye for an eye, I got mine so you can just raise yourself up by your boor straps, mentality is what allows this to myth to persist.

    Apathy, ignorance, and fear combined with a mostly unconscious racism are why the majority of whites support the system.

    When social activists proclaim it is primarily white racism which motivates the laws this gives justification to criminals to break them. After all they are told that the laws are illegitimate constructs of a racist system. And thus violators breaking them are mere political prisoners. Don’t believe me read George Jackson’s book Blood In My Eye.

  2. I agree with McWhorter to a limited degree. I think it is looking at the problem through rose colored glasses (with a special libertarian tint) to think that ending the drug war would eliminate racial tensions, and to think that magically all the young black men will have meaningful employment opportunities, even if burger flipping is considered meaningul employment. How many burgers need to be flipped, anyway?

  3. There are many reasons for the mass incarceration mess, including “tough on crime” brand politicians and a prison industry that needs individuals to plug into and through it to make a profit. With 3-strikes laws, indefinite sentences, and long sentences for non-violent offenses that don’t involve drugs, there are lots of ways to fill prisons with DUI first offenders, burglars, check kiters, etc.
    With overall unemployment so high, how does Mr. Mc Whorter think that all these people with criminal records for drugs are going to get jobs? And where are the treatment facilities for the addicted ones so they are able to work? Without more than cutting the legs out from under the profitable drug trade, like restoring social services and education cuts, how can adding more idle young men back into the community bring peace and light all by itself?
    If you can’t get a job, there have always been ways to make money–steal cars, shoplift, etc. Why would the prisons not fill up with the same superfluous mass of poor, black, latino, and white, youngish, poor men and women that society needs to keep out of circulation now? The “War on Drugs” needs to stop because it’s hugely expensive, counterproductive, and a cause of mass imprisonment–but only one of the causes.

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