Instead of Marching, Let's End the War on Drugs

U.S. Coast Guard with five tons of seized cocaine. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. Coast Guard with five tons of seized cocaine. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

So it happened. The Reclaim the Dream March "recaptured the flavor" of the March on Washington. But it isn't an accident that this brings to mind popping an old piece of gum from the underside of a desk into your mouth to see how much "flavor" might still be left in it.


The 1963 March on Washington, of course, was a signature and significant event. The question, however, is what the value is of trying to do it again. There comes a point when these marches are gestures rather than actions. And that point has come.

We can admit now, for instance, that the Million Man March, for all of the beauty many saw in it and for all of the power of Spike Lee's movie about it, created not a single lasting thing. Fifteen years later, the black community remains in crisis for all of the exact same reasons.

The March on Washington, at a certain point in time and with an unprecedented massiveness, had a function. "Let's do it again," for all of the drama in it, does not. As early as 1972 at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., Thomas Fortune, the Brooklyn, N.Y., assemblyman, was exclaiming to a reporter, "We met; therefore we won!" That must have felt true at the time, but what was won at that colorful but legacy-free event?

In 1991 in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, I recall many black people saying it was time to stop talking about things and actually do something. Yet here we are, 20 years later, still talking — say, about baggy pants, as if elders sputtering about them isn't part of the appeal of letting them hang in the first place.

Every time I see one of these marches or forums covered as significant, what occurs to me is that there is one thing we should all be focused on instead. It is, of all things, the War on Drugs. The most meaningfully pro-black policy today would be a white-hot commitment to ending its idiocy.

The War on Drugs destroys black families. It has become a norm for black children to grow up with their fathers in prison and barely knowing them. Data are unanimous in showing that children, especially poor ones, do better with two parents. We see the young black man in a do-rag pushing a baby carriage as a welcome sight rather than as a norm. That must stop.


The War on Drugs discourages young black men from seeking legal employment. Because the drugs' illegality keeps their price high, there are high salaries to be made in selling them — not at first as a low-level runner, but potentially as one rises in the hierarchy. This makes selling drugs a standing alternative to legal employment, especially if one has a poor education.

The idea that selling drugs is the only choice available is refuted by the simple fact that immigrants, including black ones, regularly make do — as do plenty of black American men who happen not to "go the wrong way." Was the man who installed your cable TV a white guy with a degree from Vanderbilt? Did the last security guard you saw have blond hair?


The War on Drugs brings firearms into black lives. Policing turf for drug sales entails guns, which then become tools for maintenance of the pecking order, including settling petty scores. A striking difference between surveys of black ghettos before the War on Drugs and today is how common guns have become.

The War on Drugs lends a badge of honor to spending time in prison. Enduring prison time, regarded (with some justification) as an unjust punishment for selling people something that they want, is seen as a badge of strength. The ex-con becomes a hero rather than someone who went the wrong way. If there were no War on Drugs, this would be a non-issue.


What will turn black America around for good is not more theatrical marches but the elimination of a policy that prevents too many people from doing their best. After welfare reform in 1996, countless people thought that black women would wind up shivering on sidewalk grates. They underestimated the basic human resilience of black people. In the same way, if the War on Drugs is ended, the same people will assume that young black men will wander about jobless and starving. They will not, because they are human beings with basic resilience and survival instincts as well.

Meanwhile, studies suggest that addiction rates do not rise when anti-drug policies are pulled back, and surely a new regime would include more diligent rehabilitation processes. The New Prohibition: Voices of Descent Challenge the Drug War is a key and readable source on all of this — highly recommended. Just as surely, however, the current policy will not do; it makes drugs no cheaper, while having the principal effect of destroying black communities. It must stop.


I'm oversimplifying? Frankly, I don't think so. What is the unsimplified version? And crucially, what proposals follow from it? Forty more years of sonorous phrasings about responsibility, expectations, institutional racism, "getting on board" and baggy pants? Surely we can do better than that.

Recall: Prisoners are often not allowed to wear belts because they could be used as weapons. As such, the pants that worry so many started as a fellow-traveler salute to prisoners — upon which we return to my argument about the War on Drugs.


Marches don't hurt, but they are a misdirection of energy. And not from an equally empty war on racism in the Tea Party or the n-word. Black uplift in 2010 should be about a war on the War on Drugs — after the success of which, I can guarantee you, slowly but surely, the teens would start pulling up their pants.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.