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Sorry Mr. Tarantino, the War on Drugs is not the Same as the Enslavement of Black Americans


Unlike human chattel in the Americas, those people had a choice. However constrained their agency, they chose to be corner boys, to hustle, or to "hold it down for their man" by keeping drugs on their person or in the home. There was no one-drop rule that deemed those who chose to participate in the drug economy human property, their children, and their children's children children chattel to be sold away in chains. There is no rule in the War on Drugs which is either constitutionally sanctioned or remotely equivalent to  Dred Scott and its "popular" notion that the lowest white man is above the most accomplished black man, or that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect.

The Black Freedom Struggle involved the marshaling of black dignity and self-respect, as well as a recurring struggle against unimaginable odds to maintain (and reconstruct) our families and communities. The politics of black respectability (a tradition that I was raised in) demanded that black people hold themselves to the highest standards, and to be the best that the race was capable of producing.

Historically, black Americans had to both take care of ourselves, while also demanding full inclusion as American citizens with all of the rights and liberties we have earned through blood sacrifice. The triumph of black people in America over formal white supremacy was based on systems of mutual aid, support, respect, resistance, and linked fate. At present, the War on Drugs is a "war" that is in many ways internecine and intraracial. There, black folks are destroying other black people in ways that are wholly distinct and separate from what occurred in the United States during chattel slavery.

Do not misunderstand my claim: the War on Drugs is racist. It disproportionately impacts people of color. Whites are more likely to use and have drugs in their possession and significantly less likely to be imprisoned. There are documented biases in sentencing and incarceration rates along the colorline. Blacks do not control the international flow of narcotics into America. Black and brown people do not profit from the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.

However, the War on Drugs is not the equivalent of chattel slavery because at some point an individual exercised the choice to place themselves at risk by participating in the drug economy. Black Americans did not choose to sell themselves into inter-generational chattel slavery, to have families destroyed, to be raped, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

[Tarantino's false equivalency can also lead to some unexpected and problematic destinations. For example, were the black community leaders who lobbied for severe penalties for crack in the 1980s, because it unleashed an epidemic of destructive violence on inner city communities, "sell-outs" or "Uncle Toms?"]

The closest analogy--and even here I would suggest that it is a weak one--to the War on Drugs would be debt peonage and the racial class exploitation (and barbarism) of the work camps in the postbellum South as discussed in the essential documentary  Slavery by Another Name.

Historians, social scientists, and others who study these matters would know that fact. Tarantino is playing with nitroglycerin inside of a hot oven on a summer's day with Django. He does not have to exaggerate, become an expert of race in America, or play an armchair historian in order to get folks to see his newest movie. He is a master filmmaker who should craft provocative art that entertains.

I hope that he is aware of that limitation. I also hope that he had some respected historians of the American South and slavery as consultants for Django...I really do, fingers crossed twice.

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