Like Nixon, Ronald Reagan won the presidency with the “southern strategy.” Then, he launched the War on Drugs. Crime was actually going down, and few Americans were worried about it, but Reagan knew he could use drugs as an excuse to target Black people. He increased sentences for marijuana and started punishing crack cocaine users (mostly poor people and Black people) much more harshly than powder cocaine users (mostly rich, white people). White and Black people sold and used drugs at the same rate, but the police mostly targeted Black men. This created mass incarceration. When Black men returned from prison, they couldn’t vote or get jobs, so they often committed crimes.
The War on Drugs is another example of how racist policies support powerful white people’s self-interest, then get justified through racist ideas. By disproportionately arresting and incarcerating Black Americans, Reagan’s administration decreased their political power. It also justified redirecting resources away from social programs that helped Black people and instead dedicating them toward sources that primarily help middle-class and wealthy white people, like the police, prisons, and tax cuts. Like new versions of the “southern strategy,” the War on Drugs is still around in the 21st century. It continues to affect Black people (and other people of color) in the United States today. This is a clear example of how the history discussed in Stamped is really a history of how the present situation came to be.
But Reagan and the media blamed stereotypes—and the welfare system—for this crime wave. Even Bill Cosby’s Cosby Show, which was supposed to improve Black people’s image by depicting an ideal “family of extraordinary Negroes,” actually made the problem worse by making most Black families look defective. Meanwhile, the columnist Charles Krauthammer started writing about drug-addicted “crack babies” and arguing that Black children were genetically defective. He had no scientific proof, but he successfully painted a whole generation of Black people as criminals.
Stereotypes about Black criminality and the “extraordinary” Huxtable family from The Cosby Show are two different kinds of racist ideas that served the same purpose: they justified the racist policy of the War on Drugs. The stereotypes suggested that it was Black people’s fault, not racism’s fault, that Black people get disproportionately arrested and incarcerated in the U.S. The Huxtable family suggests that Black people could choose to form respectable upper-middle class families if they wanted to—but they’ve somehow chosen poverty and crime instead. So the stereotypes are segregationist ideas, while The Cosby Show pushed assimilationist ideas. But the reality is that the government imposed poverty and crime on Black communities, in part by targeting them during the War on Drugs. This is an example of how students can use the history and terms they learn in Stamped to analyze the racism they see around them today.