"There's a war goin' on outside no man is safe from. You could run, but you can't hide forever.” —Prodigy of Mobb Deep, "Survival of the Fittest”

The country's at war—overseas, sure. But at home, there's another one raging. When we think of the drug war, '70s and '80s babies probably picture Nancy Reagan pleading with smiling kids to "Just Say No!” But those family-friendly public service announcements were actually part of something more sinister: a decades-long war that has claimed hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, committed millions to prison on exaggerated mandatory minimum sentences and ruined lives with no measurable improvement. Now, on the cusp of an election, which of the candidates is going to lead the charge to end the most inefficient and expensive war this country has ever engaged?

Here is the reality, the history as it happened: The modern drug war is generally considered to have begun in 1968 under President Richard Nixon. That year, the last vestige of legal discrimination was outlawed when the Fair Housing Act was enacted. Of course that didn't mean racism had been dismantled, but without a legal basis to geographically contain blacks, the logic might have gone out another route: prisons.
This isn't some apocalyptic whine. It's backed up with cold, hard facts. In the late 1960s there were fewer than 200,000 people in prisons for criminal offenses. This year, the number topped 2.2 million, about 40 percent of them black men. Meanwhile, our nation incarcerates more people for drug offenses than Western Europe does for all crimes. Let me tell it, and with numbers like that, it's time to move beyond pointing fingers at some rogue brother on the block. If this nation wants to take credit for all the doctors and businessmen it produces, then it has to take credit for those who walk another path, too.
The law is clear, but it has a loophole called the 13th Amendment. That American Constitution may have outlawed slavery in general, but not its subtler, latter-day forms. Enter the prison industrial complex. Venture capitalists have also seen the glint of gold in the bars of private prisons and they, like the feds, know it's one of the fastest-growing sectors right now. And yet many corporations understand that prison labor can be as profitable as using sweatshop labor in developing nations.
But how is the race card played? That argument sounds shaky till you do the math. Despite the fact that drug use and abuse is roughly the same between blacks and whites, even in a so-called blue state like New York, blacks are arrested at 100 times the rate of whites. That is no typo…100 times. Add to that federal and state guidelines that get you more time for a small possession of crack than a large possession of blow…well, you know how this movie ends.
With only six million black men in the country, and 17 percent of us locked up, and when you start doing the math, you face this undeniable fact: 24 percent of black men are caught up in a game that essentially makes us unemployable and unable to vote. Who cares, right? We don't vote, right? None of them stand for us, right?
But if that were true, then why did we all cry foul when MC George Bush, his brother DJ Jeb and the Supreme Court ensemble worked together in harmony to jack Florida and win the 2000 election? Here's why: Heads were pissed because we knew larceny when we saw it, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it. That's when a 2000 study found that 1.4 million African-American men were unable to vote in the 2000 election because of laws that make it nearly impossible for convicted felons to vote. In the state of Florida that year, one in every three black men were ineligible to vote, the difference between a President Bush or a President Gore. The difference between rushing into Iraq or rushing into New Orleans.
With an election season afoot, it's encouraging that many of the candidates are sidestepping their original support of the Iraq war, calling it President Bush's war. But if they're gonna opt out because of the human and financial cost, they need to apply that standard to another failed war—Nixon's.