Music History

How Jazz and Racism Led to America’s War on Drugs

Ever hear of Harry Anslinger? Probably not, even though he was America’s first drug czar. Much of today’s war on drugs can be traced back to him, his racist views and his opinion of a specific sort of music. Take some time to read this thought-provoking article from US News Beat.

Racism, Weed & Jazz: The True Origins of the War on Drugs

Standing at a podium on June 17, 1971, a scowling President Richard Nixon, his arms crossed behind his back, declared an all-out offensive against drugs, which he framed as “public enemy number-one.”

As conventional thinking goes, the 1970s, and this moment in particular, marked the beginning of America’s so-called “War on Drugs.” It’s a war the United States continues to wage to this day, contributing to a grossly overcrowded prison system — 450,000 are currently incarcerated for drug offenses, up from 40,000 in 1980 — and footed by more than $1 trillion in taxpayer funds. Even today, as the Trump administration moves ever-closer to reinvigorating this open-ended crusade, it’s Nixon who is disproportionately credited with having fathered this perpetual battle.

Yet it’s disingenuous to label Nixon the mastermind of the anti-drug movement, just as it would be ignorant to consider the drug war a modern-day phenomenon. The dubious distinction of America’s first drug czar belongs to a man few know anything about: a career government official named Harry Anslinger, who had taken over the Bureau of Prohibition just as the ill-fated ban on booze was ending. To get a more precise understanding of the machinations of Anslinger’s anti-drug blitzkrieg, one must only become acquainted with his bizarre statements on the correlation between drugs and minorities.

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers,” he once said. “Their Satanic music, Jazz and Swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

“Reefer,” he declared on another occasion, “makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

The meaning is clear: African Americans and other minorities under the influence of marijuana were a danger to the white race — women, especially.

You gotta keep going. Really.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37434 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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