Gold Rush: Jay Z Takes an Unflinching Look at Racist, Violent War on Drugs in New Short Film

The war on drugs has targeted black and brown communities since the beginning. Jay Z makes it plain here.

Scene from History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush
Scene from History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush Molly Crabapple

The so-called war on drugs has always been a storefront operation created for the sole purpose of laundering the institutional, systemic and coordinated assaults on black and brown communities in the United States of America.

And with no warning, History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush kicks in the doors on the entire fraudulent enterprise—dismantling the lies this country sells in 3 minutes and 49 seconds flat.

Gold Rush, a short film narrated by Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, illustrated by Molly Crabapple and produced by filmmaker dream hampton—begins by tracing the war’s filthy, bloody footprint from the first steps taken by President Richard Nixon in 1971. With the sounds of police sirens blaring, cell bars slamming and money machines ringing serving as a stark backdrop, Carter takes us on a journey through the 1980s Reaganomics era of hypercapitalism, the 1990s Clintonian era of mass incarceration and so-called welfare reform, and into the present day, when racist disparities in drug sentencing serve as building blocks for the New Jim Crow.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 may have reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1—and President Barack Obama may be breaking clemency records—but the stigma attached to crack has not been shed under the “gentler” approach to tackling addiction now that white heroin users are being recognized as the most problematic. And the same criminalization of black and Latino communities that intensified with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign continues.

In Gold Rush, Jay Z paints that grim scene from “his ghetto point of view” as a young drug dealer in Brooklyn, N.Y., navigating the draconian Rockefeller drug laws (pdf) during the height of Reaganomics—a time of Wild West deregulation, slashed social safety nets, and a Monopoly board full of land mines that made prison and death seem more like destiny.

“Young men like me who hustled became the sole villain and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude,” Jay Z says bluntly of the dangerous societal perceptions that drug sellers and users alike were up against.

Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Carter decentralizes the intentional pathology attached to black and Latino drug dealers hustling to support their families and, instead, focuses on the economic hypocrisy that fuels this country’s most blatantly racist industry boom: the legalization of marijuana. (Editor’s note: Read The Root’s High Society series, which focuses on the implications of the legalization of marijuana for black America.)

Now that wealthy, white venture capitalists can turn a legal profit being drug dealers, the war on drugs can no longer masquerade as a moral imperative when the moral bankruptcy is so clear. Slinging weed on the corner is framed as unforgivable criminality, whereas slinging weed from the corner office is framed as admirable entrepreneurship. Greed is respected, needs are dismissed unless we’re talking supply and demand, and the mass criminalization of black and brown people keeps families trapped in cycles of generational poverty.

These are the same families who were just told “no” to economic advancement, equitable housing, education and justice throughout the Reagan era. And children born of those families—who were often forced to hustle for their survival during the Clinton era—were labeled “superpredators” by then-first lady Hillary Clinton as she spoke in support of the sweeping 1994 crime bill that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders voted for, Vice President Joe Biden authored and President Bill Clinton signed into effect.

So it’s only fitting that Hillary Clinton’s heinous statement was co-signed by her husband in April as he defensively touted the merits of the bill with little concern for its violent and reverberating ramifications:

I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack, and sent them out in the streets to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens—she didn’t.

This nation’s politicians cloak themselves in that type of thinking, that willful disingenuousness, to avoid reckoning with the role the government plays in creating the bleak conditions that often lead to both drug selling and drug abuse. It is that thinking that leads to this nation’s apathy about a prison-industrial complex that swallows the lives of black and brown people in its carnivorous, iron jaws while the real criminals—Big Bank, Big Gov. and Big Pharma—are accountable to and for nothing but their own collective interests.

It is the thinking and language of white supremacy, rooted in economic and institutional violence.

Despite (white) folklore, drugs are not—nor have they ever been—predominantly a black problem, not in the ways that general-admission viewers have been led to believe. Elected officials try to justify the multilayered evils inflicted upon marginalized and economically disadvantaged black communities across the country. That’s a problem.

Blacks and Latinos are still being unfairly targeted and arrested on marijuana-related charges—even though whites are more likely to sell drugs—and many former felons are prohibited from participating in the nation’s fastest-growing economy. That’s a problem.

Further, while this tarnished gold rush is taking place, black and brown communities are still stalked by police officers looking for “thugs” and “dope dealers” through broken windows or on street corners. State-sanctioned violence in these communities is still framed as a necessity, while wealthy white communities where substantial drug use and abuse takes place are considered the pinnacle of the American dream. That, too, is a problem.

And the war continues.

History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush is a project of the Drug Policy Alliance, led by Senior Director asha bandele, in partnership with social-impact agency Revolve Impact. Watch it below:

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter. 

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