“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

“We must put drug abuse on the run through stronger law enforcement,” Reagan said in the Rose Garden.

It wasn’t drug abuse that was put on the run, of course, but people like me, born into this regime of “stronger law enforcement.” The stiffer sentencing policies for drug crimes – not a net increase in crime – caused the American prison population to quadruple between 1980 and 2000. While violent criminals typically account for about half of the prison population at any given time, more people were incarcerated for drug crimes than violent crimes every year from 1993 to 2009. White people are more likely than BLack and Latinx people to sell drugs, and the races consume drugs at similar rates. Yet African Americans are far more likely than Whites to be jailed for drug offenses. Nonviolent Black drug offenders remain in prison for about the same length of time (58.7 months) as violent White criminals (61.7 months). In 2016, Black and Latinx people were still grossly over-represented in the prison population at 56 percent, double their percentage of the U.S. adult population. White people were still grossly underrepresented in the prison population at 30 percent, about half their percentage of the U.S. adult population. 

Reagan didn’t start this so-called war, as historian Elizabeth Hinton recounts. President Lyndon B. Johnson first put us on the run where he named 1965 “the year when this country began a thorough, intelligent, and effective war on crime.” My parents were in high school when Johnson’s war on crime mocked his undersupported war on poverty, like a heavily armed shooter mocking the underresourced trauma surgeon. President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics = Black and antiwar activists. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” Nixon’s domestic-policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a Harper’s reporter years later, “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” 

From “How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi