The contemporary “War on Drugs” dates back to attitudes developed in the 1950s and is reflected today in alarming statistics that place African Americans in the United states as 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs by Matthew D. Lassiter tracks the evolution of the victimization of the white middle-class through different movements that brought suburban drug use into the national consciousness and resulted in efforts to demonize minority populations perceived to be responsible. In Grass Roots, Emily Dufton discusses the rise of the grassroots parent movement during the Carter administration, its subsequent invigoration during the Raegan administration and its success in lobbying against the decriminalization of marijuana by refocusing the conversation about marijuana on suburban youth. Both sources shed light on how conversations about the criminalization of drugs in America reflect underlying efforts to preserve the social dominance of affluent whites.
In Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs, Matthew D. Lassiter describes the national outrage in response to reports of heroin usage amongst the teenage children of white suburban elite. He opens with the case of the Dallas suburb of Plano, in which 14 high schoolers died in the late 20th century from heroin overdoses. Lassiter effectively sets the stage for his argument when he explains the consequences of these horrifying deaths: of the 29 individuals found responsible, the 16 local white teenagers received probation and minimal jail time while a handful of Mexican’s were given mandatory-minimum sentences of 20 years to life. He goes on to identify how, since the 1950s, the war on drugs has been constructed through the framework of a suburban crisis in which middle-class youth have been portrayed as victims.
Lassiter’s evidence is multimodal, ranging from primary sources like articles from national publications and press releases to secondary sources like scholarly journal articles that also comment on the phenomenon of white middle-class youth being victims of drugs pushed by minority drug “kingpins.” He discusses how as marijuana use spiked amongst college-aged whites, a population deemed valuable because of their membership in the dominant social group, there were calls to repeal the laws that made it felony to possess marijuana. Loopholes were introduced that would protect those caught for first time offenses, while simultaneously mandatory-minimum sentences were made increasingly harsher for—typically minority—drug-pushers. In other words, when the criminals did not fit a racialized image of the stereotypical drug user, the government doubled back on its attempts to criminalize all marijuana users. Not only did these “impossible criminals” not fit the bill, but they also had futures worthy of protection because in all other realms they were as far from criminal as possible.
Lassiter concludes his article by discussing how the Raegan administration’s alliance with the suburban parent movement served to fortify the aims of the war on drugs. In Grass Roots, Dufton echoes this in a narrative format that folds in information chronologically. First in “Atlanta, 1976,” she details how the parent movement was started by parent activist Keith Schuchard in an affluent Atlanta suburb, Emory University’s own neighborhood of Druid Hills. Dufton mentions how the parent movement took up the cause of publicly criticizing the increasing availability of marijuana paraphernalia seemingly targeted at kids. Later in “The Coming Parent Movement” and “The Most Potent Force There Is,” she describes how the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP) gains credibility as it makes its way to Washington on the back of the Raegan administration. Throughout these chapters, Dufton is able to capture the urgency of the NFP in their quest to protect their affluent, suburban communities. Additionally, she comments on the political implications of the alliance between the NFP and the Raegan administration. However, after reading Lassiter’s piece I was struck by how little Dufton does in these chapters to clarify who is disadvantaged by the efforts of the NFP. Lassiter clearly identifies that parent movement’s success in enacting actual policy change is not only tied to their powerful political allies but also a result of the ease with which they could displace blame onto urban minority populations. The Grass Roots chapters read like an ode to the work done by Schuchard and her contemporaries to bring the parent movement to the mainstream. However, Dufton’s failure to acknowledge the intersectional aspects of the NFP’s rise makes her narrative fall flat. It left me asking questions about whether the whiteness of the NFP gave it inherent credibility that contributed to its influence.
Ultimately, both sources offered informative perspectives on changing attitudes in federal drug policy from the 1950-70s. Grass Roots does not convey the entire picture as it leaves out significant racially driven contributions to the parent movement’s success, making Impossible Criminals a more thorough source on the topic.