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An Interview with Professor Doris Marie Provine, Author of Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs

the Vietnam WarProfessor Doris Marie Provine of Arizona State University’s School of Justice & Social Inquiry is the author of a really interesting and challenging new book called Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. I keep coming back to this book as a reference point for talking about some of the thorniest issues related to the intersection of race with American action — and inaction — on drug policy. These are issues that are so big and obvious that they’re almost hard to recognize as issues. Unequal Under Law, however, does a really nice job of emphasizing that we are, in fact, making racial choices in drug policy — both consciously and unconsciously — that profoundly affect the lives of our fellow citizens.

Last week I talked with Professor Provine about the book. This was a fun interview and it was also a little technology breakthrough for me because we did the whole thing over Skype. Transcript starts below and continues on the jump.

In the book you talk about how the victories of the civil rights movement actually played into the evolution of the drug war. I thought you were suggesting that the evolution of stricter drug laws and more draconian approaches to drug policing came as a dialectical response to the increase of African American participation in civil society and perhaps  was not a conscious sort of racism but played on people’s unconscious fears and anxieties.

I do think that there was a hardening in reaction to Black empowerment in the 60s and so many other changes that came at the same time, including the youth movement in general, and specifically reaction to the Vietnam War.  This was when I was in college. It was an incredible thing. All that was happening kind of one on top of another – civil rights activism, anti-war demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement.  This created a lot of resentment among older and more conservative people.  Richard Nixon, was a turning point figure because he realized, “Wow, if I can pick up on the anxiety these kids have created and that the new vocalization of African Americans has created, then I’ve really got something. I can get the whites in the South that used to vote Democratic to vote Republican.” So you see this turning, despite Nixon’s earlier “soft” position on drugs. I think that on the part of the leadership, it was pretty intentional to cultivate those anxieties which are tied up with racism, but they’re sort of a second order racism, in my estimation.

It was different in my father’s era.  My father was from Montgomery, Alabama. And he was what I would call a real old fashioned racist. My mother was from the north and anti-racist, and so the family split over this issue.. My father didn’t want to mix with black people any more than he had to, and he had some fixed opinions that were ridiculous. Well, I think that type of racism underwent a huge change in the late ‘60s and in the ‘70s among white people. That kind of racism became passé, and more of a regional thing with an older generation. What you have in its place is a kind of anxiety about racial change and about values that are connected with race. And a profound disregard for historical inequalities.  So it’s still racism, it’s just got a really different flavor to it, and it’s much more diffuse and much less easy to recognize and acknowledge in oneself.

There was a time in the ‘60s and ‘70s when white people were more ready to talk about their own racism, and about their own part in maintaining systems of inequality.  People would ask, “Why do I react this way? Why don’t I have friends who are Black or brown or culturally different?” All of that questioning kept racial equality more connected with people’s lives. And then it got replaced by this denial that there is any racism, and by the perverse concept of political correctness, which shut down the dialogue.

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