The “War on Drugs” inaugurated by President Richard Nixon—with its devastating consequences on American families for over four decades—is not only racist in its enforcement and effects. It was designed to be racist from the very beginning. It is racist on purpose, by intent.
This was the shocking revelation that erupted this week in journalist Dan Baum’s April cover story for Harper’s magazine. Baum describes a 1994 interview with Nixon advisor, John Ehrlichman, in which Ehrlichman makes the following admission:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Despite the casual brazenness of the confession, and the sociopathic depravity it displays, this did not come as a surprise to the communities most affected by the pervasive, systemic racism of the legal/judicial process and the mass incarceration state.
My first reaction upon reading of the new Ehrlichman quote was this: Disgusting. Immoral. Fascist. Heart-crushing. But why is this being treated as Breaking News when another Nixon aide, H. R. Haldeman, said the same thing years ago? I went to my copy of Christian Parenti’s, Lockdown America (1999). Yep. There it was. Haldeman admitting the exact same thing as Ehrlichman:
“[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
–H. R. Haldeman (quoted in Christian Parenti’s, Lockdown America, p. 3. This quote is an epigraph to Chapter One, and does not have a footnote/source.)
Now, three former Nixon officials have jumped in to dispute the “new” quote from John Ehrlichman and to dismiss its premise. In a joint-statement, former Nixon officials Jeffrey Donfeld, Jerome H. Jaffe, and Robert DuPont contend that Ehrlichman was just joshing. (Because ruined lives and shattered families are a real knee-slapper, right?) Ehrlichman was “known for using biting sarcasm,” they state, and suggest, “it is possible the reporter misread his tone.” “Most importantly,” these officials claim, “the statements do not reflect the facts and history of President Nixon’s approach to the drug problems.”
These former Nixon officials want us to ignore the clear words in front of our face. They claim that the admission by Ehrlichman was misconstrued and is off base. But then why did H. R. Haldeman say the same thing?
So far, the corroborating quote from H. R. Haldeman has been missing from the reporting on the “new” Ehrlichman quote. The consistency between the statements from Ehrlichman and Haldeman is a crucial piece of evidence. It should underscore the newly revealed interview with Ehrlichman and cast doubt on those who dispute the accuracy or importance of what he confesses.
The mutually reinforcing quotes from Ehrlichman and Haldeman amplify a shattering truth that communities of color having been communicating for decades: the “War on Drugs”—and the hyper-incarceration of Black, brown, and Native youth—are contemporary expressions of the US‘s foundational white supremacy. The legal and judicial systems are institutionally racist. All people of conscience must join together in a unified movement to end systemic racism in policing and sentencing, before the next generation of broken lives and grieving families.