Noam Chomsky recently took part in a video conference with Foundation Degree students about the legacy of the American Civil Rights movement, where he described the war on drugs as a “race war” against poor minorities.
When a student asked how “important Martin Luther King was to the movement,” Chomsky replied by saying “that’s almost like asking how important Nelson Mandela was to the anti-apartheid movement.” He then returned to a point he had made earlier, that the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton was the most significant of the period.
“Hampton was a very effective organizer…the most energetic and effective leader,” and he was killed by the FBI and operatives for the United States government, which Chomsky claimed created a necessarily adversarial relationship between “liberation movements” and the government.
Of course, he continued, that’s not the story the government wants citizens to believe, so they were “blanked out.”
“There are things,” Chomsky said, “the white liberal establishment just doesn’t want to be part of history.”
Another aspect of American history that was “blanked out” was “the criminalizing of black life.” He noted that abolition robbed the industrial class of cheap labor, and [they] needed a way to replace it. “Slaves were capital, but if you could imprisoned labor, states could utilize them — you get a disciplined, extremely cheap labor force that you don’t have to pay for.”
“Part of the whole industrial revival was based on the reinstitution of slave labor. That went on until the start of the Second World War,” he continued, “after which black men and women were able to work their way into the labor force, the war industries.”
“Then came two decades, the ’50s and the ’60s, of substantial economic growth. Also, egalitarian growth — the lower quintile did about the same as the upper quintile, and the black population was able to work its way into the society. They could work in the auto factories, make some money, buy a house. And over the course of those same 20 years the Civil Rights Movement took off.”
After correlating the rise of the Civil Rights Movement with the establishment of a black middle class, Chomsky went on to claim that it was on the issue of class that the black liberation movements stalled.
“The black movement hit a limit as soon as it turned to class issue,” he said. “There is a close class-race correlation, but as the black and increasingly Latino issues…began to reach up against the class barriers, there was a big reaction. Part of it was reinstitution of the criminalization of the black population in the late 1970s.”
“If you take a look at the incarceration rate in the United States, around 1980 it was approximately the same as the rest of developed society. By now, it’s out of sight — it’s five-to-ten times as high as the rest of wealthy societies.”
“It’s not based on crime,” Chomsky continued. “The device that was used to recriminalize the black population was drugs. The drug wars are fraud — a total fraud. They have nothing to do with drugs, the price of drugs doesn’t change. What the drug war has succeeded in doing is to criminalize the poor. And the poor in the United States happen to be overwhelming black and Latino.”
Chomsky then made his most explosive statement, claiming that the war on drugs is, in fact, “a race war.”
“It’s a race war. Almost entirely, from the first moment, the orders given to the police as to how to deal with drugs were, ‘You don’t go into the suburbs and arrest the white stockbroker sniffing coke in the evening, but you do go into the ghettos, and if a kid has a joint in his pocket, you put him in jail.’ So it starts with police action, not the police themselves, but the orders given to them.”
“Then there’s the sentencing, which is grotesquely disproportionate — then the highly punitive system instituted after, if anybody ever gets out of prison.” He claimed that “[p]rison’s only about one thing: punishment. They only learn one thing in prison, which is how to be a criminal…and the result is like reinstating Jim Crow.”
“The black population now — they don’t call it ‘slavery,’ but it’s under conditions of impoverishment and deprivation that are extremely severe, so if you look at the past 400 years of United States history, there have only been about 20 or 30 years of relative freedom for the black population. And that’s a real scar on society.”
“The great achievement of the Civil Rights Movement,” he concluded, “can’t be denied, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it set in motion forces that would try to overturn those changes to protect class privilege.”
Watch the entire teleconference with Noam Chomsky below.