History Untaught: Racism in a Colorblind Era

Hannah Figueroa-Velazquez, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Racism has transformed. This is because, over time, we’ve socially condemned it. That doesn’t mean racism no longer exists; it simply means society has had to adapt to shifting ethics. What we’ve gotten in response is an era of racially-coded language;  a person can’t say “Black lives don’t matter,” so instead, they say “all lives matter.” Just like a politician or presidential candidate can’t say they want to enforce a system that targets Black and brown citizens and removes them from society, so instead, they say they’re tough on crime. This lightly-veiled racism can make a person feel unsure of themselves, knowing in their heart that something feels racist yet struggling to pinpoint the issue without being accused of “reaching.” 

By analyzing the war on drugs, I was able to find some sanity in knowing I was not crazy, nor was anyone who always felt something sinister lay beneath our criminal justice system – something more than just unfortunate but unintentional inequality. Of course, it’s easy to point at disparities in poverty levels and crime rates in Black neighborhoods to excuse the overwhelming number of Black men in prison or on probation in comparison to their white counterparts. While this certainly plays a part, I’m talking about the true purpose behind pushing forth an agenda against crime, and more importantly, the dangers behind this new form of “invisible racism.” 

Dating back to the end of the Great Depression in the early-1900s, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt took on “The New Deal,” something created to provide economic relief for those struggling, which at the time were predominantly poor, working-class whites and Black Americans. As economic necessity took precedence over many white Southerners’ concerns about the growing civil rights movement, there was a temporary alliance in the Democratic party from 1930 to 1960. In response, something known as the Southern Strategy was created, a tactic used by Republican politicians who believed a majority base could be won back if they leaned in on the resentment poor white Southerners held for racial progress through a colorblind campaign of “law and order.” One of former President Nixon’s strategists admitted, “…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.” 

 Throughout his campaign, Nixon weaponized this appeal of being tough on crime, running ads that displayed horrible violence and chaos before pledging to restore order in the United States. The strategy proved significantly successful, as poor white Southerners were beginning to feel betrayed by the Democratic party’s push for desegregation and racial equity, making them eager to switch parties and dissolve the Democratic New Deal coalition. 

Seeing the attraction of an anti-crime-centered campaign, Reagan’s run for president in 1979 honed in on the practice of implying race without explicitly talking about it. Phrases such as “welfare queens” and “criminal predators” were weaponized in Reagan’s speeches to assure white Southerners that his policies would enforce racial discrimination in a new “colorblind” era. As he had promised, once elected, Reagan was fast to declare an official “war on drugs,” although at this time only 2 percent of Americans found drugs to be the most important issue at hand. Nonetheless, funding for law enforcement agencies soared, with the DEA anti-drug spending increasing from $86 million in 1981 to $1,026 million in 1991. In this same time period, resources for treatment, rehabilitation and education had their funding cut drastically. The Department of Education’s anti-drug funding decreased from $14 million to $3 million. 

Moreover, the Democratic party saw what effect the war on drugs had on swing voters, most of whom would vote for whoever was tougher on crime. By the 1980s, Democratic politicians were in a battle to be viewed as more heavily anti-drug than conservatives, effectively attracting “new Democrats” who were filtering away from conservatives and toward the Democratic candidates that had established themselves as having no tolerance for crime. This influx of Democratic supporters were mainly racists, one of their most notable associations being with the KKK, which swore to fight in the war on drugs and be the “eyes and ears” of the police.

 Ultimately, the two parties’ desperate struggle to be the party that’s toughest on crime had drastic impacts. Prison populations exploded, and in 1991 the Sentencing Project declared that approximately ¼ of young Black men were in the criminal system. Despite concerns from civil rights activists, U.S. politicians and policymakers didn’t show any signs of intent to slow down, given that in 1992, Democratic President Bill Clinton had a greater hand than any other US president in creating the racial caste system of prisons as it exists today. 

Clinton’s “3 strikes and you’re out” policy devastated Black and brown communities. Money was thrown at the anti-drug unit of the FBI while spending for food stamps, welfare and affordable housing was slashed. Under Clinton’s presidency, it was made easier to exclude people from housing if they held a criminal record. Countless people convicted for petty drug crimes found themselves homeless, struggling to find employment and lacking any government assistance. Just like that, a new form of racial discrimination had been formed, and all without the use of the word “Black.” 

Colorblindness should never be the end goal. As we saw in the war on drugs and as we see today in our everyday language, race is an integral part of U.S. politics. In America’s past, we can see a pattern for the creation, destruction and recreation of racial caste systems. What sticks out to me most is how after each transformation, the new system becomes more discrete, more elusive, and therefore harder to destroy. This is why calling out racism, no matter how shifty it may be, is a key step to bettering ourselves and our community. Most of all, to acknowledge the racism that exists within our industries today is far from a “reach” – it is history.