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50 years after the US declared war on drugs, AP examines racial disparities

FILE - In this April 9, 1988, file photo, Los Angeles police officers search one of seven people arrested for selling narcotics in South Central Los Angeles, April 9, 1988, as more than 1,000 police officers raided gang strongholds to attack on drug dealing and street violence in the nation’s second largest city. Fifty years ago President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. In the decades that followed, Black Americans, their families and their communities suffered disproportionately from harsh prison sentences and post-release restricitions. (AP Photo / Douglas C. Pizac, File)

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President Richard Nixon outlines a special message sent to the Congress, asking for an extra $155 million for a new program to combat the use of drugs. He labeled drug abuse “a national emergency.” – AP Photo / Harvey Georges

New York-based race and ethnicity reporter Aaron Morrison teamed up with data journalist Angel Kastanis and Raleigh, North Carolina-based multiformat journalist Allen Breed to explore the fallout of America’s war on drugs, launched 50 years ago this summer by President Richard Nixon.

Morrison set out to tell a story of the toll that harsh prison sentences and lifetime restrictions post-release have taken on Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities.

To do so,the AP reviewed federal and state data,finding that the Black incarceration rate in America surged from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000,and the rate for the Latino population grew from 208 per 100,000 people to 615,while the white incarceration rate grew at a more modest rate,from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.

But beyond the data,the AP trio put names and a face to those caught up in this grinding war with no clear winners but many losers. The story’s lead subject,Alton Lucas,could have had a life of touring nationally and internationally with his DJ friend,but instead discovered drugs and the drug trade at the height of the war on drugs. As a crack cocaine addict involved in trafficking,the North Carolina man faced decades in prison at a time when the drug abuse and violence plaguing Black communities were not seen as the public health issue that opioids are today.

The combination of Morrison’s deep reporting,Breed’s photos and video,and Kastanis’ data analysis,accompanied by graphics,resulted in a newsy,nuanced package, rich with historical context.

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