Black America Without a War on Drugs

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

John McWhorter draws a powerful sweeping sketch:

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.

Perhaps too sweeping. I'm not a drug policy expert, but the lack of specifics and hard stats, the conflation of inchoate televised conversation about black America with the lives of actual black people raises an alarm. I'm obviously with John on the broader goals. It would be nice if African-Americans, who make up .6 percent of the world's population, did not make up 8 percent of the world's prison population. That stat is a travesty of government policy. It would also be nice if the relentless, tiring, and overblown fatalism that haunts any discussion of black people went the way of the dinosaurs.

But when John proposes legalizing all drugs, I wonder precisely, specifically, what that means, and what would be the effects of it. Would we be faced with more drug addiction? Would that drug addiction be concentrated more among the poor, and thus among blacks? Would we have to put more money into treatment? Would that, in and of itself, become a race issue? Would we see more children addicted to drugs? Are we prepared for the spectacle of kids ODing on legal drugs? How much would we cut the prison population? Would states be willing to put out money to make sure ex-cons were reintegrated into society? And what does it even mean to legalize drugs? Is this a matter of state law? Federal law? How would this actually happen?

I don't mean to be overly harsh here. But I've heard this argument before, but I've never seen it sketched out in a detailed way. I'm willing to be convinced, but I'd like to see the downsides confronted.