In the movie Crash (2004) a "good cop" gives into his fear, and a "bad cop" gives into his humanity, as the former shoots a black male hitchhiker who had reached into his pocket like Philando Castile, and the latter reached into a burning car to save a person's life. In short, the movie captures the complicated nature of who we are and, by extension, just how complicated issues of race and racism can really be. And today, race relations in America are perhaps more complicated and more strained, than any other time in recent history.
The complex and ever more complicated web of racism that is both direct and implicit in our society, is interwoven with both social and legal measures designed to combat it. Racial quotas for schools and universities, for example, are undermined by the even greater quota demands that police departments put on their officers to fund their budgets, and private prisons put on the American tax payer to satisfy their shareholders. And even though America finally has a black president, the most egregious form of racism operates in plain sight, with the broad support of many Americans, both black and white, under the ruse of a war on drugs. That war has always been about race.
Make no mistake - America’s war on drugs has always been essentially a race war. From Native Americans, to Mexicans, to African Americans, drug laws have always been a proxy for prejudice and discrimination. Even the very first drug laws passed in San Francisco in 1875, which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens, were specifically aimed at the “tens of thousands of Chinese men and boys who had been imported into the U.S. during the 1850s and 1880s to build the great western railroads.”
Those who passed such laws justified them by saying too "many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable families, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise."[ii] As it was in the beginning, is now, and perhaps ever will be, the worst forms of racism have always been practiced for the most moral reasons. And this is true even today.
When prohibition ended in 1933, Harry J. Anslinger was the head of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was created to help fight the nation's war on bootleggers and speakeasies. But with alcohol now being legalized, Anslinger needed to find a new enemy to combat, in order to justify the continued existence of both his agency and his position. So, like any good politician, he used the same tried and true tactics of racism and fear used today, to advance his career, while increasing both his funding and corporate profits. And through propaganda films like “Reefer Madness,” he succeeded in turning a plant that the entire American Medical Association at the time concluded posed virtually no danger to society, into the greatest threat to Americans since The Red Scare of 1920.
Thanks to his efforts, America developed a unique ability to simultaneously treat addiction as a social vice and an economic virtue, as both a condition typical of most Americans and a crime, and as the engine for the coffee, tobacco, sugar, alcohol, and pharmaceutical industries on the one hand, and profit, political opportunists, and private prisons on the other. Yet these glaring contradictions of our society seem obvious only to those who are forced to live beneath its heel, and those outside of our society. That’s why 117 delegates from the UN condemned the brutality of America’s justice system recently.
Barry Yeoman put it this way: “Not since Slavery has an entire American Industry derived its profits exclusively from depriving humans beings of their freedom – not, at least until a handful of corporations and Wall street investors realized they could make millions from what some critics call ‘dungeons for dollars.’ “Prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.” In short, it is a slave system where all the profits are privatized but all of the costs are absorbed through social subsidization. Put another way, certain kinds of addiction were turned into crimes because the private prison industry has developed an addiction to criminals.
Despite a cost-benefit analysis that was done by the Rand Corporation and the U.S. Army, which found that the most cost effective way of dealing with drug addiction was prevention and treatment - a finding which was proven to be largely correct in countries like Portugal, Italy and Spain - America chose to declare a never ending War on Drugs, to the tune of 80 billion dollars per year.
Milton Friedman argued that such a war was immoral, not only because it transferred wealth from tax payers to private prisons, but because it only ensured that drug cartels would enjoy a monopoly over their market at tax payer expense. In 1984, Thomas Sowell likewise pointed out that "drugs have been a financial bonanza for organized crime, and its profits have financed the corruption of law enforcement agencies, politicians, and judges." In fact, in 1996, Gary Webb dared to expose some of that corruption by pointing out that the CIA had been shipping vast amounts of drugs into black neighborhoods in a clandestine attempt to support the Contras. And such corruption has only gotten worse today, despite the growing number of people from across both the political and intellectual spectrum who unanimously condemn it.
But it continues, because the for profit prison industry has developed an addiction of its own, to criminals. Certain kinds of addiction were categorized as a crime, in other words, because we need ever more publicly funded criminals to feed an insatiable addiction to private profits. Crime pays, and pays well.