Opinion | A Lust for Punishment

Take this country’s history of dealing with drug use and addiction. According to the Drug Policy Alliance: “The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at black men in the South. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and ’20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and especially black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.”

The crack epidemic, which many viewed as an inner-city problem among mostly black and brown people, produced a vicious raft of drug laws and the 1994 Crime Bill. However, now that there is an opioid epidemic disproportionately affecting white people, there is a concerted effort to rebrand them as victims rather than criminals and to treat them with a compassion that was denied nonwhite people addicted to drugs in previous eras.

Women fighting for their own rights, equality and body autonomy have, throughout this country’s history, been met with hostility, vitriol, derision and even violence, from the women’s suffrage activists to the women’s liberation movement to our current activists for women’s reproductive rights.

The whole discussion of abortion and those who oppose a woman’s right to choose this legal and legitimate medical procedure is in part rooted in punishment. The woman was a reckless custodian of her body and dared to have sex, unprotected, at a time when she wasn’t prepared to be a mother or with a man she didn’t want to be her child’s father. For shame. She should be made to complete the pregnancy, give birth to the child and raise it. This is her punishment for sex.

The gay rights movement was born of fatigue of people being targeted and punished for the way they expressed their love and their gender. This has evolved from sodomy laws to anti-gay immigration policies to marriage exclusion to H.I.V. criminalization laws to bathroom bills.

This same punitive spirit also shows up in welfare restrictions, conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act, education policy and criminal justice.

In discussions about the disproportionate rates of black male incarceration or black men gunned down by the police, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard conservatives say that these black males’ own actions courted the punishment, that they got what they deserved.


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