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The War on Drugs, Racial Meanings, and Structural Racism: A Holistic and Reproductive Approach

Michael L. Rosino and Matthew W. Hughey

American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 2018, vol. 77, issue 3-4, 849-892

Abstract: The War on Drugs in the United States has been part of a system of social control targeting low‐income black and Latinx communities. While this statement has been contested, its validity is clear from an encompassing framework that considers the history of racially motivated laws and practices and moral panics among whites who have blamed drug‐related social problems and crime on marginalized racial groups. We develop a holistic and reproductive approach to understanding racial oppression by analyzing racial meanings and structural racism related to the War on Drugs. To uncover structural racism, we propose a framework that captures the relationship between drug policies and enforcement practices, racialized mass incarceration, the distribution of resources, and the reproduction of racial oppression in the United States. To examine racial meanings, we present findings from an in‐depth content analysis of newspaper articles and digital media discussing the War on Drugs. Based on over 30 years of news content—394 op‐eds, letters to the editor, and news articles and 3,145 comments drawn from the comments sections of online news articles—we argue that criminal justice practices and the distribution of racial meanings through the media act as racialized structuring mechanisms. We demonstrate how those mechanisms work in tandem to strengthen and naturalize the connection between racial groups and unequal social positions. We uncover how dominant racial meanings act as symbolic resources that maintain forms of structural racism such as the War on Drugs. Finally, we discuss the benefits of our approach and suggest relevant and necessary future research and practices.

Date: 2018
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