Effects of Classism and Racism on the Prohibition Era

‘You cannot make your shimmy shake on tea. It simply can’t be done. You’ll find your shaking ain’t taking, unless you has the proper jazz, that only comes with such drinks as The Green River, Haig, and Hennessy’. This tune grapples with the tragic sentiment felt by many Americans after the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in January of 1919 which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. Musicians of the 1920’s found great popularity and fame by drawing on this perceived loss for artistic inspiration. Other industries such as advertising and film making industry expressed popular discontent with the novel social expectations. For this musician, the greatest drawback to the Prohibition movement was seemingly the inability to ‘shake your shimmy’ under the influence of lemonade and tea. However, many took more serious action in response to this drastic change and ultimately succeeded in escalating the end of this era. Ironically, this period much intended to be a dry spell for America is commonly termed the ‘Roaring 20s’ marked by numerous clubs and speakeasies, decorated with an emerging Jazz culture, and an eagerness to renounce the government’s imposed moral code. 

It is important to note however, that when considering this exciting culture of nightlife and rebellion, all social and racial groups took part. Often times, the acknowledgement that the Prohibition movement was in response to a growing class of drinking immigrants is not accompanied with the fact that many Americans actually participated in drinking culture just as much. Prohibition and temperance is often presented by historians as a movement primarily of the middle class seeking to establish respectability amongst a growing class of immigrants. Several analyses go as far as to hypothesize that before the passing of the eighteenth amendment, there was an inverse relationship between the likelihood that a county would have a prohibition policy and the size of the low income population and/or the African American population.[i]While this relationship may have some accuracy, it is not to be concluded that in general, the ‘urban’ class dominated the drinking scene. Language used in the year prior to the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment by the Anti-Saloon League and other Prohibitionists also suggests that the middle class were expected to uphold these principles of moral responsibility. Ultimately this rhetoric implicates the lower-income class and ethnic groups as being the primary target by law enforcement and consequently responsible for the ultimate failure of the Prohibition Era. 

Ironically, however, after the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibitionists struggled to enforce the law in large part because they had overestimated middle class morale, especially in New York. The Mediaindulged the public in images of middle class drinking promoting the idea that there was ‘respectable drinking.’[ii]Of course under the Volstead Act, actually having a drink was not considered illegal, but this behavior increased the demand for speakeasies and other avenues that sold and distributed liquor. Dry officials who denounced the media and these citizens for failing to set the standard for non-Americans further prove the classist and racist undertones of the Prohibition movement. Lerner points out in Dry Manhattan a quote from Federal Prohibition Commissioner Roy Haynes: Of them [middle class citizens] much is expected, for they represent the very best in American Traditions, and the nation naturally looks upon them as representative of the finest in American life. Non-observance [of Prohibition laws] on their part makes it easier for the foreigner unfamiliar with our customs and ideals, to violate the law.[iii]  These undertones of racism were so apparent at the time that ethnic groups took notice of them and interpreted them as such. 

In the African American community for example, many perceived partaking in Prohibition as an opportunity to gain social ascension and status within white America. They wanted to distinguish themselves from this false narrative that immigrants and the lower class were destructive to the American way of life. Of course considering the historical racial climate in the country, they saw this as an opportunity for change. This was particularly clear in Harlem as the Amsterdam News, the leading black paper at the time, advocated for these notions that African Americans should aim to ‘demonstrate the respectability of their race to the rest of the nation.[iv] 

Unfortunately for the dry African Americans, the contrary was true. In examining New York nightlife and the participation of the middle-class elite and federal officials in the drinking culture, it becomes clear that the notion of temperance as a respectable middle class value was a myth. In fact, the behavior of lawmakers and federal officials alone illuminates just how hypocritical the Prohibition movement was. In 1930, just 3 years before the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, George L Cassiday, better known as ‘The Man in the Green Hat,’ was arrested on charges of distributing liquor to the House and the Senate for five years.[v]  In other words, he was the Hill’s official bootlegger. Although Cassiday never published the list of individuals, he did write several articles for the Washington Post after the fact detailing his clientele and admitting to helping ‘80% of lawmakers’ break the law, many of whom voted in favor of Prohibition.[vi]He even details that after he was barred from the House office building, he began serving the Senate instead who were more careful. Many of whom would keep their illegal stash on a bookshelf next to the Congressional Record!’[vii]It can be hypothesized from incidents such as this that federal officials’ disregard for Prohibition sent several messages to the public: One message being that the Prohibitionists movement was inherently hypocritical and that notions of middle class respectability and traditional American values never existed. From this it can also be concluded that such public behavior from these groups contributed to further dismantling any respect for Prohibition laws. 

Appointed district attorney of New York, Emory Buckner, demonstrated an extreme disinterest and unconcern for the moral obligations being demanded by the Prohibition laws in an interview with The New Yorker. Buckner was the same district attorney to launched an entire camp to revamp the way that New York enforced Prohibition. This involved targeting speakeasy establishments as a whole by padlocking them shut as opposed to the prior used method of conducting federal raids and arresting only the proprietors and waitresses.[viii]When pressed about his stance on the moral obligation of Prohibition Buckner explicitly stated that he only cared for it as a legal problem and did not find fault in a man who chose to drink. He says, ‘such a man is dissatisfied with a particular condition imposed upon him by society.’ Buckner goes on to admit in this same interview that the last day he had a drink or ‘went on the wagon’ was January 26, 1925, when he was appointed to DA: approximately 5 years after Prohibition laws went into effect.[ix] This announcement blatantly undermined the Anti-Saloons notion that upper-middle class Americans would carry this moral burden and set a sophisticated example for the rest of the world. For this statement, Buckner was criticized by the Anti-Saloon League’s lead counsel Wayne Wheeler for allowing New Yorkers to ‘drink without reprisal’ and was also rebuked by the then President, Calvin Coolidge.[x] 

Beyond underestimating public morale for prohibition, classist and racist motivations also made federal officials less prepared to enforce the laws. Specifically, in New York, federal officials had to reorganize enforcement strategies because the courts could not process the amount of cases that were developing each day. In fact, it was not until the courts realized the influence that middle class America had on the working class did they begin to target the ‘respectable’ drinking spots in Manhattan’s theater district as opposed to the working class saloons. Even this proved ineffective however as citizens came up with devious ways to avoid federal raids, notably the hidden chutes that allowed patrons to dispose of liquor the basement. Enforcement agents were then forced to divert their attention once again to closing down speakeasies as a whole rather than targeting a few bartenders here and there.[xi] Of course, the pockets and influence of speakeasy patrons was also underestimated as many clubs simply reopened at other locations or even implemented a back entrance after padlocks were imposed.

Individuals of all social and racial groups defied the law: in extremely unique ways. Beyond raiding the typical image of a speakeasy as a club or organizes establishments, enforcement agents also targeted apartments as many individuals set up parties out of their own homes. One unique case described a ‘portable speakeasy’ which was characterized as ‘a roving speakeasy with no bar other than the rim of a gallon jug and no whiskey glasses.’[xii]Customers were charged thirty cents a drink which simply translated into being served the largest gulp they could take at one time. This incident is simply representative of the measures many would take to break the law. We can conclude that this was exacerbated by the strong allure of drinking culture that the middle class painted in the media, ultimately weakening the overall effect of prohibition officers. This was reiterated by many dry critics at the time who admitted that these images ‘encouraged disrespect for the noble experiment.”[xiii] After his district attorney appointment, Buckner criticized the government for not truly trying to enforce Prohibition. He says the government needed to pay its enforcement agents a living wage as the current income of $1800 a year was not enough to live in New York.[xiv]Adjusted for inflation to indicate annual revenue of today, prohibition enforcement agents were paid roughly $27,000 per year. Buckner stated this all while referring to the individuals who crafted the Eighteenth Amendment as ‘zealots. In 1931, the Commission on Prohibition Enforcement evaluated the incidents and updates of enforcement strategies at the time and despite the failure of such strategies, stood firm in opposing the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. In this same report, however, they acknowledged that ‘the support of public opinion in the several states is necessary to ensure such cooperation.’[xv]

What this ultimately suggests contrary to past and even present beliefs concerning the behavior of minority and low-income groups is that the white middle class partook just as much in this seemingly immoral behavior as any other group in America. Consequently, the perception that alcohol consumption was a shift away from traditional American values can also be considered false as it was representative of a very small portion of the country. This false perception about the middle class and minority groups undoubtedly shaped legislation concerning Prohibition and can even be argued to have the same effect with other drugs such as Marijuana in modern day. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that marijuana use today is roughly equal between blacks and whites, however; Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession.[xvi]Meanwhile, just last year, a Republican state senator inaccurately blamed African Americans for the passing of drug laws in the 1930’s: “What you really need to do is go back in the ’30s and when they outlawed all types of drugs in Kansas [and] across the United States. What was the reason why they did that? One of the reasons why — I hate to say it — it’s the African Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off those drugs just because their character makeup, their genetics, and that.”[xvii]What has happened historically and what is even happening today is that a misconception regarding who in America is utilizing drugs and for what purposes is influencing what legislation is created, and how it is enforced. The Prohibition era proved to have racist and classist motivations by presuming that the middle class were morally superior or in layman’s terms ‘better than’ other class and immigrant groups. This ultimately influenced how the city prepared to handle enforcement and contributed to the city’s initial struggle to enforce the law. Debunking myths about drug use can potentially contribute to more efficient legislation in the future. 


[i]Frendreis, John, and Raymond Tatalovich. “”A Hundred Miles of Dry”: Religion and the Persistence of Prohibition in the U.S. States.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly10, no. 3 (2010): 302-19. www.jstor.org/stable/27867151.

[ii]Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007 (148-170).

[iii]Ibid, 151.

[iv]Ibid, 201. 

[v]Wheeler, Linda. “The Day it Poured: Just 60 Short Years Ago, the Ban on Booze in D.C. was about to be Lifted.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File),Feb 27, 1994. https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=https://search-proquestcom.proxy.library.emory. edu/docview/750835381?accountid=10747.

[vi]Roller Emma. “Meet the Man Who Got Congress Its Booze During Prohibition.” The Atlantic. 11 Apr 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/meet-the-man-who-got-congress-its-booze-during-prohibition/455610/.

[vii]Kelly, John. “Congress Winks at Prohibition in Bootlegger’s Tale.” The Washington Post. Washington: 27 Apr 2009. https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.emory. edu/docview/1944021375/D72BF94DE4F54E27PQ/6?accountid=10747

[viii]Lerner, Dry Manhattan, 154. 

[ix]Markey, Morris. ‘Mr. Buckner Explains.’ The New Yorker. November 14, 1925.

https://archives.newyorker.com/newyorker/1925-11-14/flipbook/006/

[x]Lerner, Dry Manhattan, 155.

[xi]Ibid, 153

[xii]“Portable Speakeasy Operated by Pair at Rockaway Beach Uncovered by Cop: Their Bar was a 

Gallon Jug, and Whiskey Glasses were Customers’ “Guzzles”–Wares 30 Cents for a Swallow.” The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938), Jul 29, 1931. https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest com.proxy.library.emory.edu/ docview/226277963?accountid=10747.

[xiii]Lerner, Dry Manhattan, 151. 

[xiv]Markey, Mr. Buckner Explains.

[xv]Sawyer, Albert E. “Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United

States: Comment.” Michigan Law Review 30, no. 1 (1931): 7-37. doi:10.2307/1280632.

[xvi]‘The War on Marijuana in Black and White.’ American Civil Liberties Union. June 2013. https://www.aclu.org/report/report-war-marijuana-black-and-white?redirect=criminal-law-reform/war-marijuana-black-and-white

[xvii]Lopez, German. ‘A Republican Lawmaker blamed marijuana use by black people on ‘character makeup’ and ‘geneticts.’ Vox.9 Jan 2018. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/9/16866754/marijuana-legalization-racism-alford-kansas-republican.

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