Editor’s note: Drug policy is race policy. To honor drug-policy reformers on the front lines, for Black History Month, the Drug Policy Alliance, in partnership with The Root, is bringing you the stories of four phenomenal people who have been instrumental in shaping conversations around drug policy and its lethal effects on black communities around the country. To launch the series, we spoke with Wanda James, CEO of the Denver-based cannabis dispensary Simply Pure. Here we speak with Columbia University professor Samuel K. Roberts Jr.
What does it mean to reduce the harm of white supremacy? How can we, as a society, look beyond drug abuse as an illness and reckon with anti-black oppression, punishment and capitalism as the cruelest addictions in this country?
In that context, white supremacy is the pusher, but black people aren’t the ones with the habit.
Samuel K. Roberts Jr., Ph.D.—director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies, associate professor of history at Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, and associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health—is an expert in the field of African-American and public health history and politics.
Roberts is currently researching a book project on the history of drug-addiction policy and politics from the 1950s to the present, a period that encompasses the various heroin epidemics between the 1950s and the 1980s, therapeutic communities, radical recovery movements, methadone maintenance treatment and harm-reduction approaches.
Roberts’ focus on harm reduction for people of color encompasses much more than ensuring individual safety; rather, it is about dismantling systems that are unsafe for black people in the United States of America.
In our wide-ranging interview, Roberts and I discussed radical recovery; the critical need for “harm reduction of color” to end the so-called war on drugs, which has always been a war against the most oppressed and has targeted black and brown communities; and why “white flight” is a misnomer that gives entirely too much credit to whiteness.
The Root: Let’s talk about the critical need for harm reduction of color. Because that specificity and intentionality, that reframing, is not something that is discussed enough.
Samuel K. Roberts Jr.: Yes, HROC, harm reduction of color, is a specific view. Harm-reduction-of-color critique in particular is concerned with structural inequality. So it recognizes the whole social issues of drugs and the political aspects of drugs as being bound up with structures that are in place, with the effect and the function of maintaining inequality for people of color and communities of color.
From this view, we see that there’s a connection between a failing education system, hypervigilant state security systems, the mass carceral state, and deindustrialization and lack of job opportunities. Those are all connected structurally in our harm-reduction-of-color critique. I emphasize harm reduction of color because there are harm-reduction organizations that are just about helping people stay safe as they use drugs, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s very different from what I’m talking about.
This is a protest movement in many ways, or at least an advocacy movement that will ... do that seamless analysis of gender and sexual oppression, economic subjugation and mass incarceration, police brutality—you know, the whole nine. HROC is a political analysis that draws from a decadeslong history of radical movements from the ’60s and ’70s and forward, but also drawn more immediately from the energy and analyses offered by the various movements, including the Movement for Black Lives.
TR: Absolutely, and a large part of that is eradicating the racialized stigma attached to drug use. Not just the stigma, but also poverty, criminalization and addiction ... it’s a lot to dismantle and to reckon with. And in the context of white supremacy, these are radical notions.
SKR: Absolutely. An HROC perspective recognizes that stigma actually has a function. That if you’re gonna rationalize locking up 2 million people at any given point in time, as this country has, you have to have an ideology that convinces people that they’re OK with that. So you need to have a series of stigmas about there being violent, predatorial, bad mothers; drains on the welfare state, cheats, you know, unwilling to work, animalistic—all of those things, you know; potential or active terrorists. You need to have all of those in place if you’re gonna get people to sign off on all that, because let’s be clear: Putting together a carceral state is not easy.
Has anyone been successful convincing the American public to put tens of billions of dollars behind the educational system? No. It’s a lot to convince people to put in that kind of money. So you have to have them scared, and you have to have them thinking that the people against whom the stigmas are being mobilized are really not worthy of any sympathy or any respect, really.
TR: What really stood out to me while reading over your synopsis of your book research was the term “radical recovery.” I’m thinking here about mothers who may lose their job or the father who may have his children taken away. People stand to pay a steep price for speaking out about their addictions, and that can suppress recovery. Can you talk a little bit about the history of radical recovery in movement spaces?
SKR: Well, since the ... mid- to late ’60s, we’ve had a number of instances in which organizations have tied the issue of drugs, drug use, drug policy, to larger socioeconomic and political questions. So the radical part here is, we’re not just talking about plain recovery. A lot of recovery programs are not political, and that’s fine. In fact, some are actually very much, assertively anti-political. In most of your 12-step programs, you don’t come in there talking politics, you know what I mean? Because for them, that detracts or distracts you from your own responsibility and problems.
Then there’s other organizations that were supported by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. There was a group called White Lightning, which was an anti-racist, largely white organization. These organizations and other, smaller ones, made the connection between drug use in what was then called America’s ghettos and later called inner cities, or center cities where jobs are basically fleeing. You know, we talk about white flight from neighborhoods, but it’s not so much white flight that’s a problem; it’s capital flight.
These neighborhoods didn’t get in trouble because there were no white people there. We could do fine without white people. It’s that all the money left, right? All the jobs left. At the same time, for a young, employable population, if one of the only games in town is the drug trade, well, that’s what you’re gonna do.
TR: Exactly, and that carried right on over into later decades.
SKR: Right. In the ’80s and ’90s, you know, a number of things happened. First we get HIV ... by the early 1980s, heroin has taken such a toll in black communities—not just heroin use itself, but also the police ramifications that many in our mainstream leadership pushed, the politics of respectability.
They basically washed their hands of people who used drugs, and they washed their hands of the issues, any issue besides law and order. And then you combine that with [Ronald] Reagan’s war on drugs, which wasn’t just about locking people up for using drugs; it actually ended up remaking governance itself. And what I mean by that is, imagine a period of time where the surest way you’re gonna get grants from the federal government is to do drug interdiction. Not education, public health—remember, Reagan was cutting down all those; not job training, not community development—Reagan was slashing budgets for all that.
The one thing, if you needed anybody from the federal government to balance your municipal budget, you had to ... basically ask for drug money or drug fighting, drug-war money. So after a few decades of that, then if all you’re carrying is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
TR: Absolutely; the same held true for Bill Clinton in the ’90s and Hillary Clinton’s popularization of John DiIulio Jr.’s term “superpredator.” Under Clinton, states began passing their own version of “three strikes” laws, and they were awarded Truth-in-Sentencing grants to build and expand prisons.
SKR: Absolutely. Clinton had the same enthusiasm for all those policies.
TR: So let’s talk about this country’s commitment to punishment, capitalism and anti-blackness and how it has fueled the so-called drug war—because we know it’s really a war on the most targeted black and brown communities in the country. Now we have this “gentler” war on drugs for white users, but it remains punishment for black people who sell drugs.
SKR: So we do have to be careful here. Since 1973, with the Rockefeller drug laws, our impulse to separate drug users from so-called drug dealers is actually a pretty artificial one. Most people who use drugs at some point have sold drugs, even if mostly casually. And most people who sell drugs really are doing it just for side money and to support their own habit. So what I’m saying is, it’s very difficult to separate drug dealers from drug users.
There’s plenty of people who just use drugs and they never sold it. There are people out there who sell drugs and don’t use. But with the majority, there is this overlap. The number of people that we would describe as “king pins” or major distributors is a pretty small number. So we have to be careful with separating the user from the seller, because all discretion is with the prosecution.
TR: That’s an excellent point. White drug use is primarily a public health issue, even though these white people also sell small quantities of drugs. Black drug sellers, even in small quantities, are hypercriminalized because our judicial system chooses to not see them as users. And if it does, there is stigma attached.
SKR: And that’s the danger of it, right? Because so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. At what point is somebody a user and at what point are they a dealer? If we decide as a society that we’re going to take a public health approach to drug using, but continue to take a draconian approach to drug dealing, then we really haven’t [done] as much reform as we’ve thought. We can’t demonize one and empathize with the other.
So if you have a white woman who has developed a heroin problem and on the side she’s selling a little bit of heroin to maintain her own habit, somebody might say, “Oh, this poor woman; we need to get her a program because she’s not really a dealer.” You can take a black woman in the same case, but it’ll conjure up all these myths of crack moms and black women are terrible mothers, and she gets the book thrown at her.
Half a measure of reform is not the full thing. For most of our history, the drugs that we decided are the most dangerous were the ones that were associated with people who were not white. It’s really never about the drug itself, because there is no drug that is so dangerous that it warrants locking somebody up for 25 years of their lives.
TR: I’m thinking here about [former Oklahoma City Police Officer] Daniel Holtzclaw and how he targeted black women, specifically black women with criminal charges or who had battled some form of addiction and were afraid of being incarcerated. He used his power to do that. We could also look at women who are addicted to drugs and how some of them are not involved in sex work because it’s something that they want to do, necessarily, but something that they need to do to survive.
You look at what [former Gov.] Mike Pence did in Indiana, stopping the needle-exchange programs and limiting women’s access to reproductive choices, and how that affected women of color and exploded the HIV rate. There is a dangerous intersection of criminalization and misogyny, particularly as it pertains to black women. Sexual assault is the second-highest reported form of police brutality after excessive force.
So this is not only a public health issue for black women, or a criminal issue, but a feminist issue.
SKR: Absolutely. There’s really so much in terms of drug policy and criminal-justice policy that affects black women in very specific ways. Black women’s incarcerated population mushroomed in the early ’90s, late ’90s, and the first decade of the 2000s.
Black women in particular are more vulnerable to the problems of fraying community bonds, such as domestic abuse, the state incursions and state violence, and so there’s certain ways in which substance use with black women has its own particular dimensions, as clearly an indication of self-medication. And once they’re in the system, they are particularly more vulnerable to the sexual assault and violence, either in encounters with police officers or with correctional officers. This is a critical issue.
TR: Absolutely. Poverty is also a systemic illness that affects personal wellness in black and brown working-class communities and those living in deep poverty. And while there has been some movement on policy around the country, do you think there has been progress eradicating the intentional stigmas that fuel this oppression?
SKR: Yes, one of the many inspiring things about the Movement for Black Lives is the high proportion of black women, queer and/or trans, in the leadership of these organizations. Because with them comes a very complex and sophisticated analysis of various problems and an ability to connect all those.
So if you want to talk to someone, if you want to get some of the most sophisticated analysis of sexual violence and sexual politics, drug policy, war on the poor and war on black people, you talk to a trans activist of color who works with homeless youth. Because they’ve seen all of those things, and it can show how they all seamlessly work in this really hideous system that’s essentially designed to brutalize entire populations. These are individuals that were not in the forefront of black political mobilization even 15 years ago, let alone 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement. We are in a really creative movement in terms of black politics.
TR: There are a lot of tentacles deeply rooted in the history of black people in the United States that have been shaped by the so-called war on drugs. What does winning this war look like to you?
SKR: Massive investment in education, obviously, right? But we also need to think about how we plan an economy where there are industries waiting for people who have that education. And that’s gonna take a lot of political will as well. And we need to think about our health infrastructure.
As you started off our conversation, where you were saying poverty as a disease ... being poor is probably the most dangerous threat to your health. ... And so we ... need to really work on that infrastructure. Most of the issues that we attribute to drug use will be vastly mitigated if we paid more attention to these other things. When you give people more tools with which they can be in control of their lives, they tend to not be as harmful to themselves or to others. And, in this moment, I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.
The so-called war on drugs has been exposed for the capitalist money grab and the white supremacist assault that it is. And this I know to be true: It is our duty to win. We will not allow stigma to infest our communities, and we will continue to fight back when we see it.
We will have greater empathy for those who make the decision to self-medicate the pain of struggling to survive in an anti-black society. And we will focus on radical recovery because the shame is not ours, and it never has been.
We will look at poverty as an illness and not a moral failing, and we will insist, to others and to ourselves, that our humanity in the face of intentional institutional violence and oppression is always worth fighting for.