Black Leaders Once Championed the Strict Drug Laws They Now Seek to Dismantle

Arun Venugopal, WNYC, August 15, 2013

A few months after taking office, New York Governor David Paterson stood in a drug treatment center in Queens, and made history.

“And finally today, on this sunny day, in April of 2009, with the stroke of a pen, we will end the regime of the Rockefeller drug laws,” said Paterson, drawing cheers.

With that gesture, New York’s first black governor rolled back the mandatory minimum sentencing laws first passed in 1973 that disproportionately locked up African-American men.

Earlier this week, another black leader, US Attorney General Eric Holder, argued that Rockefeller-style laws should be eased at the federal level as well.

“The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old,” Holder told NPR. “There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

This notion that strict drug laws have done more harm than good in black America is widely-accepted. Black elected officials have been instrumental in reforming strict sentencing laws in recent years.

What’s less well-known is that early on, many African-American leaders championed those mandatory minimum sentences and other tough-on-crime policies. These efforts could be seen at the federal and state levels, as well as across black communities such as Harlem.


“African-Americans are portrayed as passive victims to this, as the prison boom just washed over their communities, as if they were just completely victimized,” said Vanessa Barker, author of ‘The Politics of Imprisonment.’ “I find that stance dehumanizing, I also find that stance empirically, historically inaccurate.”

Barker and others argue that in the 1960s, residents of black neighborhoods felt constantly under threat from addicts and others associated with the drug trade, and their calls for increased safety measures resonated at community meetings, in the pages of black newspapers like ‘The Amsterdam News,’ and in churches.


Black support for the drug war didn’t just grow in New York. At the federal level, members of the newly-formed Congressional Black Caucus met with President Richard Nixon, urging him to ramp up the drug war as fast as possible. {snip}

“The silent black majority of Harlem and New York City felt constantly accosted by drug addicts, by pushers, by crime,” said Michael Javen Fortner, a political scientist and historian from Rutgers University who recently wrote on the issue.


But the notion that black leaders played a pivotal role in the drug war is controversial. Some black historians, including Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book “The New Jim Crow,” have downplayed the role of black America in promoting and sustaining the drug war. Alexander declined to be interviewed for this story, but in public comments she has portrayed the drug war as the creation of white politicians, deliberately targeting black Americans.

“The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime,” said Alexander. “The drug war was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters, as a way to say, “We’re going to get tough on them, put them back in their place–and ‘them’ was not so subtly defined as African Americans.”

Fortner disagrees, and said his research on the prominent role black leaders played in fostering the drug war is unpopular among those who subscribe to the backlash theory.

“If you think that everything can be explained by white backlash, if you think the white racial order is somehow omni-present and all-powerful, and is always trying to re-establish itself, then you hate what I do,” he said.


Today, Deborah Peterson Small heads a group called Break the Chains, but she spent years fighting for reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. In the 1960s and 70s, she said, there were different camps fighting over the issue within the black community: radicals and others who worried about the urban poor, and the black political establishment, which represented the working and middle class.

“I like to call them the Black Victorians, who had always taken a very bourgeois position around the need for black people to adhere as much as possible to middle-class standards of behavior as one of the prerequisites for being able to be fully integrated into American society,” said Small.

The debate leading up to passage of the laws in 1973 was fierce, exposing rifts within the community. Some black lawmakers dismissed Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s black allies as “palace pets.” Others, like Brooklyn’s Vander L. Beatty, one of the top black legislators at the time, said the Rockefeller laws didn’t go far enough. He wanted the death penalty.


In the 1980s, sales of crack cocaine exploded, as did the amount of federal dollars spent on enforcement. In 1989, nearly a million people were arrested on drug charges, more than twice the number just 7 years earlier. Meanwhile, it had become increasingly apparent that blacks were being incarcerated at much higher rates than whites arrested for drug times. Some Congressional black leaders, like Rep. Charles Rangel, of Harlem, continued to push for tough sentencing standards. But it was around this time, said Small, that other black officials started to finally embrace reforms.


Although black elected officials seized upon drug reform, Fortner said it’s important for African Americans to discuss why the drug war happened, and the role their leaders played in its creation.

“People worry that talking black on black crime, that moves the agenda from talking about other problems,” said Fortner.


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  • Puggg

    People talk about the crack-powdercoke 100 times disparity (before Obama signed legislation to lower crack sentences), and use that as an example of “racism” (blacks are crack, high income whites are powdercoke). What they don’t tell you is that the Federal recommended sentences for crystal meth was one-half of that for crack when crack sentences were high, meaning there was (and still is) a 50 times disparity between crystal meth and powdercoke. Maybe that’s an example of classism? Meth = lower class whites, powdercoke = high income whites.

    • Daniel Schmuhl

      I don’t think that it’s necessarily due to racism or classism. Many drugs that are functionally equivalent carry different sentences. Pure (street stuff usually has added chemicals)Meth is just a stimulant but its treated different than many similar chemicals found in common prescriptions like those prescribed for ADHD even though its not its not qualitatively different.

      • Puggg

        I don’t think it is either. I think the sentencing disparity had everything to do with how dangerous the drug is. I’m saying that if you’re going to make a race case on the crack-powdercoke disparity, then you could also make a class case of the never talked about meth-powdercoke disparity.

        • shmo123

          Most blacks end up in prison because, like the poster above noted, they don’t have enough common sense to take their illicit trade inside, or apparently make any attempt at hiding it. They’re about as discrete as carnival barkers. That’s why they get caught and arrested at far higher rates than whites. It’s simple, boneheaded stupidity.

          • Puggg

            Meth cookers end up in prison because they can’t contain the smell, and the “manufacturing” process sometimes go boom.

  • sbuffalonative

    I’ve been saying this for years.

    I lived in NYC during the crack epidemic. Blacks were the ones demanding tougher drug laws to get rid of crack heads and crack dealers (remember crack babies?).

    Round and around. Today they demand this. Tomorrow they demand the opposite.

    Dealing with blacks is a losing proposition. You lose no matter what you do.

    • White Mom in WDC

      Which is why just need to stop dealing with them and a government that enables them. I’m over it.

    • libertarian1234

      If you regard them as violent imbecilic children, you can’t go wrong.

    • evilsandmich

      Barker and others argue that in the 1960s, residents of black neighborhoods felt constantly under threat from addicts and others associated with the drug trade

      Who would want to go back to those days, ha!
      Maybe their shift in attitude has to do with the fact that the laws were pretty ineffective in achieving the results that they wanted (best case to be sure, doubtful, but still best case).

  • ncpride

    It’s about time someone called blacks on their utter hypocrisy on this issue. I love to point out it was their own who demanded harsher punishment when clueless people try to use that as an argument for racism. They got exactly what they demanded, and we couldn’t roll over fast enough to give it to them, and any other thing they demand for that matter. You can’t win with blacks.

  • Spartacus

    Can’t you guys just find a way to “taint” their drugs, for more harmful effects ?

    • It isn’t us guys distributing the junk. If the CIA was doing it, they’d find some additive to make them not just sterile but impotent.

    • George

      Um…the critters already believe that crack was a CIA invention.
      They’ve also believed that grape-flavoured drinks were marketed to blacks to sterilise them.
      Their conspiracy theories are already bad enough. Do we really need to fuel that particular fire?

      • Spartacus

        You seem to be thinking I care about what goes through their empty heads… I don’t .

        • Irishgirl

          My give-a-damn’s busted.

  • bigone4u

    Since the 1950s blacks have gotten everything they wanted from our cheap tinhorn politicians–school integration, generalalized integration, interracial marriage, bussing, headstart, massive wealth transfers, section 8 housing, and with conservatives, the war on drugs. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that blacks were the ones that would go to prison in massve numbers because of the drug war. But 43 years later they finally got it and now play the racism card once more. Blacks are a one trick pony, always with the race card. I’m tired of it and have been since the 50s. If there is a heaven and I make it there, may it be free of blacks.

    • IstvanIN

      They’re soulless so, yes, they aren’t there.

    • Tim_in_Indiana

      I agree, and now the best way for the “War on Drugs” to be ended is to have blacks start whining that it’s “racist.” Whites turn into jelly when charges of racism are raised.

    • Ngati Pakeha

      No that is an awful thought. Knowing my luck I’ll get up to heaven and MLK or Malcolm X will be running the show. If so I’ll ask to go ‘downstairs’ and roll the dice.

  • Daniel Schmuhl

    This isn’t surprising. Black leaders are currently criticizing stand your ground and are in favor of more gun control even though you could make a solid case that this would harm the black community.

  • APaige

    Blacks are never happy, always even blaming whites for their own decisions. Another example, as a group they were referred to as ‘negro’, but wanted that changed to black. As in the ‘black is beautiful ‘and ‘black power’ slogans. If finally dawned on them that ‘black’ in the English language has many negative connotations: black magic, black-listed, black-balled, etc. AND they blamed whites for calling them black! Now they are African-Americans.

    • Ed_NY

      Before “negro” they were “colored”. Colored was deemed racist so it became “negro”. “Negro” turned out to be racist so it went to “black”. “Black” was bad so they went with African-American. It sounds like they have an identity crisis and it appears they are never happy.

      • baldowl

        I don’t think there’s another people on the globe so plagued by labels. The problem is, whatever they’re called, they soon imbue the label with negative connotations, by their very nature. We could start calling them angels tomorrow, and by the end of the year “angel” would have a negative connotation.

      • IstvanIN

        Don’t forget Afro-American, that was popular for, as they say, a hot minute.

        • Ed_NY

          I did forget. As I recall Afro-American was used briefly in the early 70’s. For some reason that became offensive. We can only wonder what the next moniker will be. It’s something, “colored people” is offensive while “people of color” is not.

      • George

        Go back one more step.
        They considered ‘coloured’ to be an improvement on that word that drives the critters nuts.

    • Tim_in_Indiana

      Yeah, and wait until it dawns on white Americans all the negative connotations “African” carries with it.

  • JohnEngelman

    I often hear about “non violent drug offenses,” although the term is not defined.

    When the term “non violent drug offense” is spoken it is easy to think of someone arrested with several marijuana cigarettes in his pocket. Nevertheless drug dealers of hard drugs are very violent men.

    • Daniel Schmuhl

      Well you’re right about that but a substantial amount of that violence is due to the illicit nature of the substance. They have to be violet to enforce contracts and property rights outside of the state. Alcohol bootleggers were violent too.

    • evilsandmich

      True that, it’s not like they were going to go to medical school if the drug trade didn’t exist.

  • NeanderthalDNA

    Same old story. 85 average IQ types with little self control simply commit more crimes and will never achieve as highly as their better brained benefactors…

    Oh Whitey, please help us get control of our communities and put those druggies away. The drug epidemic is racist!

    Years later…

    Evil Whitey! Stop policing our neighborhoods! Fix all the problems but don’t do this or that or this…who you think you are trying to “help” us? Do something! Don’t do something!


    • libertarian1234

      This is just one more item that unequivocally proves that integration is an absolute failure.

  • MekongDelta69

    A friend and I were talking about black crime decades ago and to make a long story short, we both said that White cops should patrol White neighborhood; Black cops should patrol black neighborhoods; Brown cops should patrol brown neighborhoods; – and so on.

    Of course it will never happen – because it makes way too much sense in a land of cowering leftists.

    • Ed_NY

      I have had many black criminals tell me that White cops on average treat them much better then black cops.

      • WR_the_realist

        Which is why they need the black cops.

    • RisingReich

      Agreed. The police force should reflect the community they are policing.
      Blacks policing Whites is a prescription for abuse.

  • So CAL Snowman

    It seems black people are more Mitt Romney than Barack Obama . . . hip hop to the flip flop and they don’t stop!

  • 48224

    ‘With that gesture, New York’s first black governor rolled back the mandatory minimum sentencing laws first passed in 1973 that disproportionately locked up African-American men.’
    Doesn’t EVERY law do that???

  • din_do_nuffins

    The black privilege elites in the law schools have been pushing for relaxation on sentencing because so many of El-Obama-Hammad’s Civilian Army are in jail instead of marching and fighting against racist White privilege.

    One of Eve Carson’s enrichers was supposed to be in jail at the time, but he was out giving Diversity instead.

  • dd121

    I’m enough of a Libertarian to say let them have their drugs and let nature take its course.

    • IstvanIN

      Then they wander into our neighborhoods and attack us.

  • kjh64

    Blacks aside, I do think the war on drugs is a failure, It is wrong and expensive to put people who are not dealers ,but just posses drug paraphernalia or small amounts of drugs , in jail. These “zero tolerance” policies have been ridiculous and expensive. I was watching Cops where a White man was arrested for drugs, Cops found a tiny speck of cocaine and he was arrested, a mere speck. It was silly.. Addiction itself shouldn’t be a crime and it has been massively expensive to jail people just for possession.

    • exLibtard

      The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected blacks, as the blacks are always whining, and therefore we shouldn’t call it off. If this puts more blacks into prison, so be it. It’s the price we all have to pay for the fact that we don’t have freedom of association in this country anymore. We can’t stop them from coming into our neighborhoods or our schools (sometimes they’re forced on us). Long prison sentences are a good way to isolate the problem race.

      • kjh64

        Yes, but there are plenty of Whites in jail who are addicts too. I just don’t think being addicted drugs and thus having a small amount of drugs or paraphernalia should cause you to go to prison any more than being an alcoholic should send you to jail. This to me isn’t about Blacks per se but everyone.

    • Tim_in_Indiana

      The problem is, most heavy drug users eventually become dealers. It’s the only way to fund their habit.

      • RisingReich

        The real problem is that you can’t legislate a man’s appetite. Honest Abe was right about that, too.

      • kjh64

        Well, if they go on to commit another crime as the result of their addiction such as dealing drugs or robbing someone, then they can and should go to jail just like if an alcoholic drives drunk, the s(he) can go to jail I was talking about those that just posses drug paraphernalia or small amounts of drugs.

    • George

      Without a market, the dealers would find another line of work.
      So, those with small ‘personal use’ amounts of narcotics, pipes, papers, needles, etc. are the end users of illegal and destructive items. When it is made difficult for these individuals (jail, loss of employment, loss of children, etc.) the market forces at work curb this illegal trade. The ‘just a speck’ chap had undoubtedly injested the rest of his most recent purchase.
      Conversely, those who most actively resisted the repeal of prohibition were, of course, the rum runners and organised crime. They didn’t want to lose the profits of a lucrative market.
      If we want to solve the drug problem, we need to follow Singapore’s example. Rapid death penalty for importation. If being found with a joint or two leads directly to a needle in one’s arm, most rational people will find other ways to entertain themselves. As for the rest? Well, society is better off without them.

      • kjh64

        No, I don’t agree. Addiction to drugs shouldn’t be a crime. People become addicted to alcohol, that’s a drug and alcoholism is very destructive. I don’t see the difference between smoking pot and drinking. The War on Drugs is a huge and costly failure, our jails and prisons are full and it hasn’t stopped anything. As to the death penalty for drugs, that’s not going to happen nor should it. I my opinion, the death penalty should be reserved only for killers or child rapists.

  • cancerous bananna

    I enjoy my beer on a hot summers day.. I may smoke a joint if the moment is right..
    But that does not make me complacent or stupified in knowing others can’t even handle that.. what I believe it is is a program to stupify the United States. By legalization.

  • RHG

    Do whites sell and use drugs, sure they do. But, for the most part they are smart enough to do it behind closed doors whereas blacks do their business right out in the open, in the street, and then wonder why they come to the attention of law enfocement.

  • IKantunderstand

    I admit, I didn’t read the article. Here’s why: Don’t care. However, I will say this: legalizing drugs is not a good idea. The powers that be know that a stoned populace is not very effective, militarily. Did George Washington fire up a doobie, before entering his troops into battle? And, even assuming doobies were around for George to partake, do you think he would have? NO, no, and NO. People back then, (I mean White people), believed in God, country, liberty, and freedom. They wanted to be able to charter their own course. We Whites(Americans) are no longer vouchsafed that right. Never forget: IT IS OUR COUNTRY! We fought and died for it. Everyone else who has come here since the sixties are interlopers. They have no (colored) skin in the game. I sure as heck don’t know what to do about Blacks, but why we are allowing more coloreds into this country, who are taking advantage of affirmative action, only tells me one thing, and one thing only: Damn, my government hates me as a White, hates me so much, that they are willing to extend A.A. rights to people who have never been a slave; indeed, to anybody of color, because, I guess, they presume if this country had been lousy with India Indians, and Arab Muslims, etc. they would have been enslaved???? This country has done nothing but be a beacon of hope in the past, you know, when only Whites were allowed here. Now, the globalists have determined that EVERY WHITE country is a beacon for the uncivilized, uneducated, and savage colored people to enter in, to be allowed to escape their failed countries. WTF??!! They were stupid in their home countries, and they will be just as stupid in ours. The only difference? WE Whites are having to pay for their stupidity and laziness. Apparently, the gazillion dollars of aid we have given, is not enough, oh no, we must perforce(decided by others), share our very homelands with them, and allow them to take over. Please ask yourself, “Why?” Then, please ask yourself, “What am I going to do about it?”

  • Ngati Pakeha

    Reminds me of an old proverb: “be careful what you wish for”.

  • WR_the_realist

    It’s not just the drug war. If muggers and car thieves are making a black neighborhood unlivable and the cops aren’t stopping them that’s racist. If the cops come in and arrest the muggers and car thieves, who all turn out to be black, that’s racist too.

    • What the n-words are hoping for is that black crime can be eliminated if enough white males are arrested. These are the same n-words who believe that whites have somehow hogged all the good neighborhoods and good jobs for themselves.

      HuffPo even liked one of the n-words who said he was coming for my job. I haven’t worked a steady job since 2006, which makes it amusing. It was delivering pizza even then, so it’s even funnier. Since we’d have to go back to 2000 to find me as the world’s best chemist in the microelectronics industry, it’s absolutely hilarious. You can have my old job, n-word, and work for pathological liars. You’d be the b-word then. Maybe they’ll get someone from India or Russia; all they’ve got now is some DARPA Phase-One SBIRs, which basically have the company on drip-feed.

      Larry and Carlos paid themselves a huge bonus in a year the company was losing money. Did I earlier say they lie like normal people breathe? You go work for them. You be the b-word.

      I haven’t been off the block since Sunday afternoon’s shopping trip with Ariadne and one of the neighbors, so the area’s muggings, rapes, vehicle break-ins and home burglaries certainly aren’t my doing.

  • jackryanvb

    I lived in the hell of New York City late 80s, early 90s, left shortly before the Guliani NYPD clean up.

    With urban Blacks the point to remember is to always be tough, but fair; don’t worry what “activists” say.

    Blacks are like misbehaving teen children, they need a loving, firm hand that tells them what to do, tells them how to dress, tells them what music to listen to and what music not to listen to, it’s the price Blacks must pay to live in a safe, prosperous White civilization, if they don’t like it they can try to live in some Haitian slum, BRA Detroit.

    Any whining White Liberal or worse Libertarian who has some theory that terrible Black crime, murder rates, or drop out, incarceration rates is because THE LAW is too strict and lower class Blacks should be left alone, free to choose how they will live, these idiots/traitors should be turned over to the worst Blacks for human sacrifice – suffer the fate of Amy Biehl.

  • WR_the_realist

    I admit to having mixed views on drugs myself. Certainly Prohibition turned out to be a bust. There is something to be said for just legalizing the whole lot and let the chips fall where they may. The problem is that inevitably there is pressure to socialize the costs. People want a “right” to take cocaine and then they want a “right” to free detox and addiction therapy. Maybe it would work if there were taxes on the drugs high enough to pay for any social programs needed as a consequence of the drug use. Given that the consequences may extend to making some people totally unemployable, the social costs are likely to be very high.

  • evilsandmich

    Lots of blacks at the concealed carry office in Ohio; and I doubt that they’re getting them because they live around lots of white people (amazed I was that there is still a signifigant cohort of black males that are able to get a permit).

  • evilsandmich

    Let people be masters of their own bodies and force them to face the consequences of their own actions

    That’s a completely different mindset from the prevailing attitude though…