The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs

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Lassiter 2015Matthew D. Lassiter is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006), winner of the 2007 Lillian Smith Award presented by the Southern Regional Council. He is also coeditor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1998). His current book project is The Suburban Crisis: Crime, Drugs, and the Lost Innocence of White Middle-Class America. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

His article “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.” The article and the entire issue are freely available to the public.

Could you briefly describe your article?


“Impossible Criminals” demonstrates that since the 1950s, state institutions and American political culture have repeatedly constructed the war on drugs through the framework of suburban crisis and portrayed white middle-class youth who break the law as innocent victims who must be protected from both the illegal drug markets and the punitive policies of the carceral state. The article covers a four-decade period and draws from multiple chapters of my current book project, The Suburban Crisis: Crime, Drugs, and the Lost Innocence of White Middle-Class America. I’m most interested in tracing the process of public policy formation and examining the discretionary and inequitable methods of drug war enforcement along the lines of race, class, and urban/suburban space. “Impossible Criminals” argues that perceived “epidemics” of white middle-class drug use directly shaped the development of the American war on drugs during three stages in particular—the enactment of harsh mandatory-minimum penalties targeting urban and foreign “pushers” alleged to be corrupting the white suburbs in the 1950s, the bipartisan effort to exempt “otherwise law-abiding” middle-class pot smokers from punitive drug enforcement during the Nixon era, and the underappreciated connections between “just say no” public health campaigns in the suburbs and militarized interdiction in urban centers and border regions during the Carter and Reagan presidencies.

The article’s main contribution is to emphasize that the very exemptions created for white middle-class participants in the underground marketplace played crucial roles in the escalation of the war on drugs and the expansion of the carceral state in urban minority areas. The decriminalization of white middle-class youth who consumed illegal drugs and the parallel defense of white residential spaces had direct consequences in the enactment of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, discretionary policing and prosecutorial policies, and the intensification of crime control policies in central cities and border regions.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?


My focus on the role of white youth and white middle-class suburbs in the wars on drugs and crime provides an atypical, and complementary, perspective given the predominant scholarly emphasis—both in this JAH special issue and more broadly—on the racial control of nonwhite subjects in urban centers and immigration enforcement. My research is deeply influenced by the superb work of historians such as Khalil Muhammad, Miroslava Chávez-García, and Donna Murch, who have analyzed the ways in which state institutions, discretionary law enforcement practices, and discourses of social pathology criminalized African American and Latino youth collectively. I believe that to understand the origins and staying power of mass incarceration in modern American history, it is just as important to recognize the ways in which these same processes have racialized and decriminalized white middle-class youth—an updated version of what Muhammad’s Condemnation of Blackness calls the “masking of crime among whites” during the Progressive era. My argument is that as a political category and a cultural symbol, the young white middle-class victim has been as central to the ebb and flow of the war on drugs as the urban dope “pusher,” the foreign trafficker, and the predatory ghetto addict.

This perspective also challenges some aspects of the conventional wisdom about the war on drugs and the expansion of the carceral state in modern America. “Impossible Criminals” offers a longer chronological view and a broader ideological dimension than a narrative that highlights conservative “frontlash” against the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, Nixon’s declaration of unconditional war on drugs in 1971, Rockefeller’s mandatory-minimum laws in 1973, and Reagan’s repressive assault on urban crack markets in the 1980s. My article starts earlier with the establishment of harsh mandatory-minimum laws in the 1950s, emphasizes the bipartisan collaboration behind every major policy shift at the federal level, analyzes the war on drugs as a racial state-building project that involved law-and-order liberals alongside conservatives, and brings grassroots suburban social movements into a scholarship that has been dominated by attention to top-down policymaking.

How can other historians best incorporate your work (and that of other historians of the carceral state) into their teaching?


Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow (2010) brilliantly examines how racial discrimination and discretion operate in the contemporary criminal justice system, but its historical account of the origins of the war on drugs is one-sided and simplistic—yet another saga of conservative Republican backlash and racial exploitation of white fears by the Reagan administration. To understand why the American racial state is so powerful and why mass incarceration is so widespread, historians and teachers need more comprehensive accounts of the wars on crime and drugs across a longer time frame and a much broader political spectrum, which is exactly the goal of this group of contributors to the JAH special issue. My story highlights Democratic drug warriors such as Kenneth Hahn in Los Angeles County, Pat Brown in California state politics, and Thomas Dodd and Joe Biden in the U.S. Senate—joining historians such as Elizabeth Hinton and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann in portraying liberal policymakers as key architects of the crime and drug wars. In my view, rather than defining punitive policies as a priori conservative and then narrating their embrace by liberals as a ‘right turn,’ we should emphasize the racialized and disciplinary projects at the heart of modern liberalism and investigate how policy formation has consistently operated within a consensus framework when politicians seek to protect white middle-class communities from crime and drugs and to impose law-and-order programs in the inner cities and on the border. The massive growth of the carceral state constituted a racial and spatial project not a partisan enterprise.

This special issue is also indicative of the welcome and overdue attention to crime, policing, and incarceration by scholars in my two main subfields, urban and political history, where inquiries into racial inequality have focused much more on topics such as housing, education, and urban redevelopment. “Impossible Criminals” points toward the key role played by grassroots social movements in the trajectory of the war on drugs, from the suburban crusade against narcotics “pushers” in the 1950s to the pivotal and underappreciated impact of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These suburban political formations, and the embrace of their agenda by politicians of both parties, also help to explain why marijuana has remained at the center of the American war on drugs for so long, as the criminalization and militarized policing on the supply side operates alongside the decriminalization and public health approach to the white middle-class consumer. As a Nixon official acknowledged in 1970, when the Republican administration endorsed drug legislation that increase mandatory-minimum punishments for “peddlers” while reducing marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, middle-class parents were demanding that the government “throw the book at the trafficker, but don’t lock up my kid.”

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

In 2013, David Simon, creator of The Wire, expressed opposition to the legalization of marijuana by popular referendum in Colorado and Washington, stating: “I want the thing [the war on drugs]to fall as one complete edifice. If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous. If they can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail, … and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.”

“Impossible Criminals” argues that the racial and spatial logics of the American war on drugs reflect both the bipartisan mandate for urban crime control and the balancing act required to resolve an impossible public policy, the criminalization of the social practices and consumer choices of tens of millions of white middle-class Americans categorized in both politics and culture as “otherwise law-abiding citizens.” Simon’s blunt assessment captures an important dynamic but lacks historical context, given that the war on drugs has effectively decriminalized white middle-class recreational use for decades. But he is right about the dangers of selective reform; as my article recounts, the ACLU and NORML launched campaigns against marijuana prohibition in the late 1960s and early 1970s by evading the issue of urban crime control and explicitly positioning white middle-class youth as the illegitimate targets and sympathetic victims of the war on drugs. It’s not a coincidence that marijuana legalization in the current moment has arrived first in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado—states with small African American populations, where the perception of illegal drug user is overwhelmingly white. The historical patterns traced in my article also foreshadow the cultural and political shift toward categorizing the ongoing heroin “epidemic” in white suburban and small-town areas as a public health rather than a criminal justice problem, although the recognition of the complicity of pharmaceutical corporations and prescription medication rather than just evil “pushers” from urban and foreign places is unusual and significant. Most unexpectedly, the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing criticism of stop-and-frisk policing have managed to transform African American and Latino males in central cities into sympathetic victims of an overzealous carceral state, especially when the crime involves possession of small amounts of marijuana, something David Simon did not anticipate even if his show helped alter these public attitudes. The criminalization of marijuana has long stood at the epicenter of the war on drugs, from urban policing crackdowns to policies of border interdiction to moralistic public health campaigns in white middle-class suburbs. Criminal law is a misguided—and inevitably discriminatory— governance approach to all types of drug use, but as happened with alcohol in the 1930s, disassociating marijuana from crime control nationwide would be a good place for comprehensive reform to start.

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