Marijuana-legalization advocates and members of community groups rally against marijuana arrests in front of One Police Plaza on June 13, 2012, in New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

What is the color of pain? Is it the color of red blood spilling onto concrete? Is it green like the dirty money folded into the back pockets of politicians who would rather incarcerate black youths than educate them?

During The Root’s Black History Month series on poverty and the drug war—in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance—we continued to excavate the truth from the ruins of targeted and occupied communities that have been ravaged by the so-called war on drugs. We delved into the numbers and reiterated that poverty, police and prisons are forms of structural violence that have been thrust upon black, brown and indigenous communities in the service of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism—that the shame is not ours.


It is no conspiracy that this nation, which holds itself in such high esteem, despite being the prison warden of the world, has conspired against the very communities that were forced to build it on their backs.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports:

  • People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal-justice system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug-law violations.
  • Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.
  • Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory-minimum sentence for black people than for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory-minimum sentence in 2011, 38 percent were Latino and 31 percent were black.
  • Black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.


It is no secret that the color of pain is black, and it is neither fatalistic nor nihilistic to come to that conclusion. It is neither a diminishing nor rejection of black joy, black resilience or black futures to make that plain. From draconian drug policies to disenfranchisement, money-bail bond systems to civil-asset forfeiture, food and housing instability to police officers killing black people with impunity—and preying on vulnerable black women simply because they can—this system was designed to enslave black people and ration out freedom.

So, what does justice look like within a white supremacist police state that lies to itself about the depth of its own character? What freedom dreams can we conjure within a system created to criminalize, dehumanize and destroy us?


Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, the visionary behind DPA’s Black History Month series, and 2016 The Root 100 honoree, has consistently and unapologetically maintained that the history of the drug war in this country is inextricably linked to black history. She’s not wrong.

We can’t discuss the history of black America without acknowledging that the Nixon administration camouflaged its war on black people by causing hysteria around drugs, nor without acknowledging the Jim Crow-era drug policies that continue to define Bill de Blasio’s New York City.


We can’t discuss the history of black America without discussing mass incarceration, the disappearing of black men into the jaws of the criminal-(in)justice system, the vilification of black mothers suffering through addiction and the state-sponsored police slaying of black children.

We can’t ignore that the drug war has influenced everything from inhumane immigration policies to racist housing policies. We can’t ignore that generational poverty has been equated to moral bankruptcy in this country; nor can we ignore that harm reduction for some working-class or poor black people is less about battling addiction and more about navigating institutionalized, systemic anti-blackness. Grief, trauma, addiction, stigma, punishment: This is the cycle that must be broken.


For some black people, it is an act of self-perseverance to point to black people doing well by most metrics and say, “Look, all of us aren’t selling weed or living in the hood or in jail.” And it is this line of classist, condescending thinking that led many black people to support tough-on-crime/tough-on-drugs legislation under both President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton without looking at the oppressive conditions that often lead to both. In this country, more than any other, violent drug policy has been carved out of black flesh.

The color of pain is black, but so is the color of freedom.

“Black people have been the most severely impacted by the war on drugs,” Frederique said. “And in this moment when white faces have caused the nation to have a critical interrogation about what to do about drugs, black people need the whole story so, in the moment, that we can demand the necessary acknowledgment, atonement and action to build our communities.”





That is what Color of Pain—a Drug Policy Alliance initiative spearheaded by Frederique and Dionna King, policy manager at the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance—is demanding: reparations.


The Color of Pain website is an invaluable resource for us all. The necessity of Racial and Ethnic Impact Statements, which “[require] policymakers proposing new legislation or changes to existing legislation to assess the potential impact on racial disparities,” is outlined. The drug war’s destructive path is mapped through all the systems that black people are forced to navigate without the recognition of their humanity: education, social services, mental health, the criminal-justice system and the child-welfare system.

As Black History Month comes to a close, let us remember that black dignity is important year-round; black health is important year-round; black joy is important year-round; black lives matter year-round. And we do that by releasing ourselves from the pathology that this nation has intentionally crafted to make us feel small, less than, unworthy, criminal.


We must not be complicit in perpetuating dangerous, dishonest, violent narratives about the people we love, the people who look like us, the people whom this war on drugs has harmed the most.

It cannot be said enough that this system is not broken. It is working exactly as it was intended to work; oppressing exactly whom it was designed to oppress; profiting exactly from the bodies it was designed to profit from; and destroying exactly whom it was designed to destroy.

Still, the color of freedom is black—and, together, we will win.

Visit Color of Pain website to learn more about reparative justice, the calamitous effects of the drug war in black and Latinx communities, and policy solutions that will move us forward.