Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media | Review

Michael L. Rosino is the Assistant Professor of Sociology at Molloy College in New York State. In his book, Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media, he explores the following areas of debate on the War on Drugs: ‘the history of the relationship between racism and drug policies, the role of the media as a place where people debate these policies, how the debate reflects popular ideas about race, crime, and politics and even commonly held ideals like justice, equality, and freedom, and how people construct and reinforce identities through their participation in these debates and what that means for society’.

In order to get a clear breakdown of the views held by people in this debate across the media, he ‘conducted a content analysis of over 30 years of US newspaper content that focuses on the War on Drugs, including 394 op-eds, letters to the editor, and news articles.’ He also examined ‘3,145 comments on the internet’, gathering them from the comments sections of relevant online news articles, published from 2009 to 2014. Including the Introduction and Conclusion, there are six chapters, which include questions for academics to discuss, as well as additional notes. To emphasise the ongoing legacy of systemic racism in the United States, Rosino begins the Introduction by detailing the fatal police shooting of unarmed eighteen-year-old African-American, Ramarley Graham, in 2012. He mentions that this was only one of three killings of black men that week by the New York Police Department.

A plain clothes NYPD Officer shot Graham in the bathroom of his home, which he shared with his grandmother and six-year-old brother, after the cops involved broke down both the back door and the bathroom door. Graham was trying to flush a small amount of newly-bought cannabis down the toilet. The officers involved had seen his purchase through street cameras and had decided to follow him home, entering without a warrant. Before the young man’s home was breached, Officer Richard Haste announced that Graham had a firearm, ‘perhaps misrecognising the young man adjusting the waistband of his pants’. A gun was never found at the site. This gives readers a sample of the racist police violence that is so prevalent across the US. Rosino covers the racist origins of American drug prohibition, which relied on the creation of moral panics, exaggeratedly defining activities, events or people as ‘a threat to societal values and interests’.

The powerful would manufacture such hysteria, linking minority ethnic groups to the supply of drugs and the corruption of the innocence of white moral values. The author begins by outlining the suppression of Chinese opium dens in the 1870s, eventually leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law excluding an entire ethnic group from entering the United States. Anti-Catholic sentiment and growing antisemitism against Jewish immigrants in the alcohol trade, by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, led to a demand for alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Popular and influential media depicted European migrants who identified with these religions as threatening to the dominance of white Protestants in America. Mexicans, blacks and Native Americans were all presented by the Temperance movements as engaging in criminal and immoral activities, particularly when using alcohol. Rosino provides examples of how historical prohibition has had a lasting effect on racial discrimination in policing and the legal and criminal justice systems.

One study from 2006 stated that, ‘although a majority of drug transactions involving the five serious drugs under consideration here involve a white drug dealer, 64 percent of those arrested for drug delivery in Seattle from January 1999 to April 2001 were black.’ A 2016 study said: ‘Overall, in comparison to blacks, whites receive shorter prison sentences for the same drug crimes in the United States.’ A 2007 study into the effects of felony convictions on employment, found that white applicants who had felony convictions received more callbacks than blacks who had no criminal record at all. A groundbreaking sociological study of crime carried out by W.E.B Du Bois in 1889 gets a mention too, where he showed that ‘racial differences in crime rates were a product of residential segregation, disproportionate policing and surveillance, the impact of slavery, racial discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, and lack of government investment in black communities.’

Rosino mentions two response tiers which began to emerge for problem opiate drug use in America during the 2010s. One of harm reduction, treatment and empathy, and one of surveillance, punishment and incarceration. Statistically, the former tends to be the approach for white people with drug issues, while the latter is how black people with the same issues are dealt with. Although the Obama government began moving away from severely punitive drug laws, former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of the Trump administration re-introduced regressive drug laws and narratives, positing that cannabis use is linked to violence and that it is addictive and dangerous. Rosino discusses media agenda-setting, via frames, which present coherent narratives of a complicated War on Drugs. By examining digital copies of local, regional, and national newspapers containing the term ‘War on Drugs’, from the ’80s onwards, the author was able to break down exactly how arguments have been framed in the media over the years.

He presented four primary frames: Fiscal, Freedom and Justice, Functionalism and Racial Unfairness, each of which was further broken down into sub-frames. They were given percentages based on the frequency they appeared. The frame of Racial Unfairness was the least common to appear, at almost 9%. Additional frames were included in the author’s breakdown of internet comments, such as Racialized Victim Blaming, which had sub-frames like Denial of racism. Racial Unfairness was acknowledged nearly 12% of the time by commenters. According to Psychologist and Sociologist, William J. Ryan, victim blaming involves ‘justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.’ Racialized Victim Blaming took place when commenters ‘interpreted racial disparities in arrest or mass incarceration as a natural or legitimate outcome of inherent differences in traits between whites and blacks.’ Such comment authors ‘saw clear evidence of systemic oppression as instead serving as evidence of moral inferiority or social deviance.’

For me, chapters four and five were the most eye-opening sections of the book, as they covered important terms like racial silence, coded language and identity construction. Racial silence involves the implicit silence of whites (including white-dominated media) regarding the ongoing legacy of systemic racism, which is a central issue of the discriminatory War on Drugs. Because whites are dominant in positions of power and influence, their perceptions of themselves, other ethnic groups, and so-called cultural norms in behaviour and thought are imposed on society, promoting their interests as being legitimate, natural, or common sense. Coded language is explained by the author as ‘enabling claim makers to construct racialized subject-positions while maintaining surface-level racial silence.’ Code words for ethnic minorities range from crack babies and welfare recipients to terrorists, cartels and thugs. Words such as these are used to ‘conjure racial imagery, yet avoid the direct evocation of racial categories.’

In this way, age-old myths about an intrinsic superiority of whites compared to other ethnic groups who are threatening, dysfunctional, and morally-inferior are reinforced to some degree in the public psyche. Rosino states that identity construction and reinforcement are an integral part of responding to, understanding and debating a given issue, such as the War on Drugs. People are inclined to identify themselves as being part of a particular group, while excluding others via symbolic boundaries. The categorising of racial groups, dominant traits associated with them, and differences between them, are just some symbolic boundaries. Such notions are highly influenced by those with the most power and influence in society. Michael L. Rosino’sDebating the Drug War..‘ is more informative and enlightening than this review can truly communicate. It’s packed with sociological and racial concepts and data which underline the urgency for drastic racial justice and drug reform in America (and by extension, the Western world and beyond).

Many uncomfortable truths of systemic racism are laid bare in this book. Often, those truths are ignored, undermined or denied in the media and in public discourse. It seems that a significant amount of white Americans prefer to imagine that their society is fundamentally fair and equal and that those complaining about social inequities have simply failed in life through poor personal choices, or were born into an inherently inferior culture with lesser moral values. The reality is that this is nonsense. No ethnic groups are less morally sound or more naturally prone to dysfunction, violence and crime.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Michael L. Rosino for providing us with a review copy of this book.

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