30 Rhetoric, Race, and the War on Drugs

Blaise Gardineer

To my mother, for all of the time you spent and sacrifices you made for me. You will always be my greatest role model.

To my father, for teaching me what it takes to be a strong man in an unforgiving world. I use your advice every day.

To my sister, Veahna, for always being someone I can trust. I’ll always have your back.

To Aunt Net and Uncle Randy, for always taking care of me and becoming the grandparents I never got to meet.

To Aunt Patty, Aunt Lisa, Aunt Sherry, Aunt Suzette, and Aunt Stephanie, for bringing so much joy into my life and always supporting me. Go Deacs.

To all the friends I’ve made along the way. I won’t disappoint you all.

Keywords: Identity, Speech, Authority, Ideas, Values


Rhetoric shapes the world around us. Whether it be through advertisements that influence the things we buy, or articles that alter the opinions we hold, rhetoric has the power to change perception, and consequently, affect reality. Of course, the impact rhetoric can have on our lives isn’t limited to such mundane tasks like shopping and reading – its application and effects can extend to political discussion, policymaking, and action. Suddenly, the language we use evolves into a powerful tool that can have far-reaching real-life implications.


In American politics, arguably the most powerful voice is that of the President of the United States. Almost everything presidents do is widely documented, circulated, and critiqued, giving them a nearly unrivaled capacity to dictate narratives and influence policy initiatives with their statements (Yates and Whitford). When presidents utilize their rhetorical power, the results are widespread, and can lead to varying outcomes for different citizens across the country. In demonstrating these assertions, there are few better cases to examine than the American war on drugs.


At the beginning of the war on drugs, President Richard Nixon made calculated rhetorical choices in framing the issue to the American people, and his rhetorical choices would go on to shape the laws created to combat drug use in the United States in both his own administration and in his successor’s. Critical race theorists, those who study the intersection of race, law, and societal outcomes, have found that these laws resulted in disproportionately negative effects on black communities across the country, and have continued to impact generations of African Americans. In this chapter, I hope to draw connections between the rhetoric used in marketing the war on drugs and its outcomes.


A key characteristic of Nixon’s anti-drug agenda was his framing of the initiative as a war. Militaristic rhetoric has been used to market the logic behind a host of different policy initiatives to the American people on both foreign and domestic issues; Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty being one example, and the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union being another. The attractiveness of war as a metaphor for presidents to market government action stems from its ability to evoke distinct behaviors and emotions, or pathos, in the American people.


Wars tend to evoke crisis attitudes in citizens. Crisis situations, when speaking rhetorically, frame a scenario as one that requires urgent, decisive action (Zarefsky). In addition, wars typically provide a common enemy for people to unite under the shared goal of defeating; the concept of poverty was the enemy of Johnson’s rhetorical policy war, and containing the threat of communism fueled the Cold War. These reactions allow for the rapid consolidation of public support for action, and demonstrate how rhetoric can enable presidents to extend their role as commander-in-chief from a military context to a legislative one in political advocacy.


When looking at prior examples of war being central to the ethos of policy marketing, the “enemy” that citizens were asked to unite against was an abstract concept. In Lyndon B. Johnson’s case, this enemy was poverty, and it was “defeated” by the passage of extensive civil rights reforms and social programs. With the Cold War, America was ultimately crowned the victor with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, with the war on drugs, the rhetorical framing of the issue saw did not chastise some ideological enemy. Instead, it constituted the redefinition of American citizens as “enemies” (Stuart), which combined with the feelings evoked by war typically, created a perceived necessity for aggressive response tactics.


This move toward interpopulation warfare began with President Nixon’s rhetorical choices, and would continue to influence the policies of his successors in combatting the production, circulation, and usage of drugs in the United States. Policies like the Drug Free Schools Act of 1986, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, established relationships between schools and juvenile justice systems – relationships underpinned by the enforcement of zero-tolerance drug use policies that carried harsh repercussions. The Safe Schools Act of 1994 further normalized the relationship between schools and law enforcement by creating funding for “school resource officers,” which were usually local police officers as opposed to trained faculty, that would be stationed at schools to enforce the rules. The combination of severe punishment for drug-related crimes and an increase in law enforcement presence in schools astronomically increased student arrests on school properties, creating the “school-to-prison pipeline” that excessively impacted black Americans (Fornili).


The militaristic ethos behind marketing the war on drugs implicitly influenced the enforcement of its policies, resulting in an offensive shift in how policing takes place in the United States. Normally, law enforcement officials stay on stand-by, waiting to be summoned in order to resolve conflicts. However, the enforcement of war on drugs policies saw police officers placed in the “front lines” with their injection into schools, and lethally armed with cruel mandatory minimum penalties. Ultimately, the pursuit of a domestic “enemy” would lead to the mass incarceration of African Americans, a product of disproportionate levels of policing in black communities and the unforgiving nature of the punishments associated with drug-related offenses. This mass incarceration would have lasting impacts on generations of black people, and these outcomes have been examined under the lens of critical race theory.


A concept asserted by critical race theory (CRT) is social construction, which holds that the dominant race in a society has the propensity to invent ideas about other groups in order to achieve a desired result. The concept of social construction goes hand-in-hand with differential racialization, another CRT concept holding that behaviors such as drug use and criminal activity are more common among people of color than white people (Delgado and Stefancic). The rhetoric used in marketing the war on drugs constitutes social construction, as impoverished urban communities that were typically made up of African Americans were painted as obstacles in stopping the spread of drugs in the U.S. The societal outcome of this social construction was the normalization of the ideas behind differential racialization.


As the belief that black people consume drugs more often than white people gained popularity, it began to influence the levels of policing on black people across the country. While there is no empirical evidence to show that African Americans use drugs at a higher rate than white Americans, there is evidence showing that blacks account for a higher percentage of drug-related arrests compared to whites, make up almost half of all drug-related convictions and state prison sentences, and are twice as likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop (Thompson and Bobo). These significant disparities in policing practices between blacks and whites demonstrates a relationship between race and the enforcement of drug-related laws, as police would often use race as a factor when gauging whether or not to purse action against an individual (Fornili). As black people began to funnel into the prison system, they would forfeit their right to vote, as well as access to educational and professional opportunities. These outcomes are crucial in understanding the generational impact of the war on drugs, and its rhetoric, on African Americans.


It is my hope that throughout this chapter, I have demonstrated the expansive power of rhetoric in shaping reality by examining the war on drugs. The use of war as a metaphor in promoting anti-drug policy allowed for the rapid consolidation of public support for action, while simultaneously redefining some Americans as enemies. This resulted in harsh enforcement policies being enacted that would disproportionately impact African American communities compared to other groups. Further, the generational effects on African American communities in America can be better understood through the lens of critical race theory, as it demonstrates how race and law can interact to create long-term societal consequences. All of these outcomes are a result of rhetorical choices, exemplifying their importance.

Works Cited


Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction. NYU Press, 2017.

Fornili, Katherine Smith. “Racialized Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs: A Critical Race Theory Appraisal.” Journal of Addictions Nursing, vol. 29, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 65–72. journals.lww.com, doi:10.1097/JAN.0000000000000215.

Stuart, Susan. “War as Metaphor and the Rule of Law in Crisis: The Lessons We Should Have Learned from the War on Drugs.” Southern Illinois University Law Journal, vol. 36, no. 1, 2012 2011, pp. 1–44.

Thompson, Victor R., and Lawrence D. Bobo. “Thinking about Crime: Race and Lay Accounts of Lawbreaking Behavior.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 634, no. 1, SAGE Publications Inc, Mar. 2011, pp. 16–38. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0002716210387057.

Yates, Jeff, and Andrew B. Whitford. “Race in the War on Drugs: The Social Consequences of Presidential Rhetoric.” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, 2009, pp. 874–98. Wiley Online Library, doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-1461.2009.01163.x.

Zarefsky, David. “Presidential Rhetoric and the Power of Definition.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 2004, pp. 607–19. Wiley Online Library, doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5705.2004.00214.x.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Blaise Gardineer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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