By Alan Bean
Quentin Tarantino has definitely been reading Michelle Alexander. Last month, while talking up his new movie, Django Unchained on a Canadian talk show, the controversial film director launched into a discourse on the American war on drugs:
Like most celebrities with a limited grasp of the issues, Tarantino garbles his facts a bit. Most drug war prisoners aren’t held in private prisons and aren’t working for corporations who exploit prison labor. This happens, to be sure, but it isn’t the typical scenario.
And there are an unholy host of reasons for the disproportionate incarceration of young black males. The late Bill Suntz argues persuasively that the war on drugs is a proxy war on gun violence. Young black males are no more likely to sell drugs than young white males, but they are far more likely to engage in gang-related gun violence. Law enforcement nails gang bangers on drug charges, Stuntz says, because they are trying to clamp down on gang activity. It is easier to bust a guy on the street for drugs and make it stick in court than it would be to convince a jury that the suspect may have been involved in an act of violence.
But the best explanation for the explosion of the drug war after 1980, as Stuntz fully understood, is political. Politicians who knew next to nothing about street-level crime went after drugs and drug dealers because it got them elected and kept them in office. When Democrats saw how easy the tuff-on-crime game had become, they quickly evolved into expert players. The goal wasn’t to get drugs off the street; the goal was to get a leg up on the political opposition. Sentences for drug crime have expanded and the rules governing narcotics investigations were relaxed for the same reason: talking tough on drugs was great political theater. The relative ease of prosecuting drug cases is critical to Stuntz’s argument about drugs and violence.
Two factors explain the rise of drug war politics: spiking crime rates and white resentment. The drug war started with civil rights backlash and accelerated with the catastrophic rise of violent crime that accompanied the crack epidemic. When the crack scare ran its course and murder rates dropped just as dramatically as they had risen, the drug war soldiered on, largely because it was in no one’s political interest to challenge it.
And that’s what makes Tarantino’s tirade significant. Five years ago, it was exceedingly unusual to hear a critique of the war on drugs in mainstream venues. It was particularly unusual to hear celebrities describing the drug war as a continuation of America’s scandalous racial history. We can credit Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for a big part of that change. Tarantino didn’t replicate Michelle’s highly nuanced argument, but he got the basic idea, and that’s a big deal.