Rarely is racism by a politician so explicit.
Asked about marijuana legalization over the weekend at a legislative coffee event, a Kansas lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Steve Alford, gave a shocking response: “What you really need to do is go back in the ’30s and when they outlawed all types of drugs in Kansas [and] across the United States. What was the reason why they did that? One of the reasons why — I hate to say it — it’s the African Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off those drugs just because their character makeup, their genetics, and that.”
Alford later apologized for the remarks after facing criticism, saying, “I was wrong, I regret my comments, and I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I have hurt.” But he also insisted, before his apology, that he’s not racist.
I have been covering drug policy since I was a student journalist in 2010. This is easily the most overtly racist comment I have seen a contemporary politician make on drug policy. It’s a politician saying, outright, that black people are genetically predisposed to an act that he considers negative. (Needless to say, it is absolutely untrue: Black and white people use marijuana and drugs in general at similar rates, and black and white people report similar rates of substance use disorder, according to federal surveys.)
Although this comment and its explicit racism are more obvious to us today, this kind of racism was in fact one of the ways that American policymakers and elites justified the war on drugs in the early 20th century.
As the New York Times explained, the federal prohibition of marijuana came during a period of national hysteria about the effect of the drug on Mexican immigrants and black communities. Concerns about a new, exotic drug, coupled with feelings of xenophobia and racism that were all too common in the 1930s, drove law enforcement, the broader public, and eventually legislators to demand the drug’s prohibition. “Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of ‘immoral’ populations who were promptly labeled ‘fiends,’” Brent Staples wrote for the Times.
These beliefs extended to practically all forms of drug prohibition. According to historian Peter Knight at the University of Manchester in the UK, opium largely came over to America with Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. Americans, already skeptical of the drug, quickly latched onto xenophobic beliefs that opium somehow made Chinese immigrants dangerous. “Stories of Chinese immigrants who lured white females into prostitution, along with the media depictions of the Chinese as depraved and unclean, bolstered the enactment of anti-opium laws in eleven states between 1877 and 1900,” Knight wrote.
Cocaine was similarly attached in fear to black communities, neuroscientist Carl Hart wrote for the Nation.
The belief was so widespread that the New York Times even felt comfortable writing headlines in 1914 that claimed “Negro cocaine ‘fiends’ are a new southern menace.” The author of the Times piece — a physician — wrote, “[The cocaine user] imagines that he hears people taunting and abusing him, and this often incites homicidal attacks upon innocent and unsuspecting victims.” He later added, “Many of the wholesale killings in the South may be cited as indicating that accuracy in shooting is not interfered with — is, indeed, probably improved — by cocaine. … I believe the record of the ‘cocaine n----r’ near Asheville who dropped five men dead in their tracks using only one cartridge for each, offers evidence that is sufficiently convincing.”
These prejudices help explain the skewed outcomes we see in America’s war on drugs today. Although black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates, black people are much more likely to be arrested for drug possession.
This is not to say in any shape or form that everyone who supports the prohibition of drugs is racist. There are sensible arguments for legally prohibiting drugs, given how dangerous these substances can be. But these policies have deeply racist roots — and Alford’s remarks offer a reminder of that history.