Jay Z Explains How The War On Drugs Really Is A War On People Of Color (Video)

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Jay Z, one of the world’s most successful artists and businessmen, made his way into the Rap game in part by spinning true-to-life tales about hustling in the streets, spending a considerable amount of his time coming up as a self-proclaimed D-Boy. Far from an unfamiliar trope in Hip-Hop music, Jigga’s rise to fame was in part built on a foundation funded by illicit income, income that is readily available on the streets of cities across the country. But its availability is itself the result of what most would see as a major design flaw in American society, and that is the war on drugs.

Sure, drugs can be made illegal. But that does not reduce the demand for the product. That demand is then met by those who are looking for a way to make money, and far too often those people are themselves systematically barred from a good education, well-paying jobs, and other societal structures typically reserved for the affluent or – as is often the case – White people. That’s a reality reflected in Jay Z’s own words, certainly embodied in songs like “Friend or Foe,” from his 1996 debut LP, Reasonable Doubt. But such views are also maintained by the man behind the songs, one who has never shied away from sharing his particular brand of rags-to-riches autobiography in interviews.

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The little boy from Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is now the kingpin of an entirely different kind of empire, but a recent collaboration with the New York Times isn’t about his brand, nor his music career. Rather, it’s a segment on America’s relationship with drugs and how it has failed to address the addiction, crime, and prosecution of drug offenders. Jay Z serves as the narrator for a mini-documentary called “The History of the War on Drugs: from Prohibition to Gold Rush.” Far from a passive participant, Jigga opens his narration in the year 1986, recalling the moment when President Ronald Reagan “doubled down on the war on drugs” that President Richard Nixon had launched years prior. Jay recounts how the rhetoric surrounding the domestic offensive led to a hivemind mentality in which “drug dealers were monsters” and that they were made to be the sole reason cities were falling apart; not, for example, the defunding of schools and other failures of the presidency.

“Young men who looked like me became the sole villain, and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude,” he describes of the era. As a result, incarceration rates in the next decade skyrocketed, the side effects of which are still being felt today. Things like tough-on-crime laws and mandatory life sentences became the norm for low-level drug offenders, he says, and in his home state of New York, these were exacerbated by what were called “Rockefeller Laws” (a name which gives Jay Z’s decision to call his label “Roc-A-Fella” yet another layer of contextual meaning).

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At the 1:25 mark, Jay Z begins to describe the egregious disproportion in the rate by which White and non-White drug offenders were treated by the law. Although crack cocaine and powder cocaine are quite literally the same drug, sentences for users of either were undeniably handed out in such a way as to buttress White supremacy. “Even though White people used and sold crack more than Black people, somehow it was Black people who went to prison,” he explains before saying “the media ignore that data to this day.” “Brooklyn PD raided our Brooklyn neighborhoods while Manhattan bankers openly used coke with impunity,” he describes.

Yet it isn’t just through the use of anecdotes that Jay Z drives the point home. He offers up some statistics that seem impossible to believe, but are true, without a reasonable doubt. “When the war on drugs started in 1971, our prison population was 200,000. Today, it is over two million.” In 2014 alone, there were over a million drug-related arrests, with an astonishing 80% relating to possession only. Of those, half were marijuana related, a fact made even more unbelievable considering the nationwide loosening of regulations on marijuana cultivation and use.

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But there are some glimpses of progress, says Jay Z, although the idea that the war on drugs is over is laughable. “People are finally starting to talk about treating addiction to harder drugs as a health crisis, but there’s no compassionate language about drug dealers.” Even then, however, racial disparities exist. As Jigga illustrates, in Colorado the open marijuana market has boosted the state’s economy. Things are not so in Louisiana, where “they’re still handing out mandatory sentences for people who sell weed.” Geography aside, there are major differences along racial lines at play here. Most resources place Whites as 82% of the state’s overall population, whereas Louisiana is only 65% White and home to the nation’s second largest proportion of African-Americans. “Most states still disproportionately hand out mandatory life sentences to Black and Latinos with drug cases,” says Jay.

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And it gets even deeper than that. Even if you’re “entrepreneurial and live in one of the many states that are passing legalized laws, you may still face barriers participating in the above-ground economy,” he says of Black and Brown Americans. That’s due in large part to the venture capitalists, overwhelmingly White, who unsurprisingly “migrate to these states to open multi-million dollar operations. The former felons can’t open a dispensary. Lots of times, those felonies were drug charges caught by poor people who sold drugs for a living but now prevented from participating in one of the fastest-growing economies.”

Jay continues dispensing knowledge left and right throughout the remainder of the brief but informative video, and in closing says “the war on drugs was an epic fail.”

For more information on the data behind the war on drugs, Heads can visit the Drug Policy Alliance, a non profit which also provides visitors with opportunities for getting involved with changing legislation.

Find Amanda Mester on Twitter.