SOME time ago, it became part of the conventional wisdom to suggest that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson would make an ideal Drug Czar. It is a position which has never existed in the past, and the responsibilities of the Czar are necessarily vague.
At first, the idea of creating the position seemed more a way of dealing with the Jackson factor than of dealing with drugs. Faced with an unpredictable and ambitious rabble-rouser, the Democrats didn't want Jackson on the ticket and weren't too excited about the prospect of having him in the cabinet. What to do? Create a positon where he could, under the auspices of the government, travel from school to school, reminding students to put "hope in their brains" instead of "dope in their veins." It would be harmless.
But maybe there was more than cynicism behind the idea. The drug problem--some would say hysteria--has risen to the top of the public's list of concerns, and polling shows that Americans view drugs as the number one problem facing the country. With this concern in mind, the Republicans have been thinking about naming a Drug Czar of their own.
According to New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, the GOP's man for the job is none other than Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. He has made a name for himself by taking a tough stand against major leaguers who abuse illegal substances. He has gone so far as to try to require mandatory drug testing of all purveyors of the great American pastime.
That Ueberroth and Jackson would be the two people, and so far as I know the only two people, who have been named as potential Drug Czars reveals much about how we view the drug problem in this country.
One man represents the lower-class, largely Black citizens who see the drug problem arising from economics. The other speaks for the wealthy, largely white portion of the country whose safety is threatened by drugs and drug-related crime. But such distinctions are usuallly glossed over when the drug problem is put up for discussion. Just the other day, two prominent experts on the drug epidemic appeared on a local television show and concurred that drug use was not a political problem, but rather a "people problem."
THE Just Say No campaign of Nancy Reagan underscores the determination with which Americans, or at least some Americans, attempt to frame the drug problem as a national one, affecting all people in the same way. If a wealthy suburban teenager becomes addicted to cocaine, it is simply part of the drug problem. So too if inner-city ghetto kids end up killing each other over a crack sale. Just Saying No will do the trick.
But in truth, these two stories of drug usage are unrelated, and the importance of drugs in either of these tragic scenarios is more than likely overblown. The wealthy, suburbanite cocaine addict more often than not is succumbing to largely psychological pressures: stress, family problems, etc. The crack dealers in the inner-city are acting largely out of sociological pressures, and more fundamentally than that, economic ones. In both cases, drugs hardly seem to be the source of either problem, they are merely an avenue of expression, dangerous though the path is.
A story in The New York Times Magazine many months ago chronicled an investigation by New York City police into a drug-related murder. The suspects involved were relatively young, and the detectives emphasized that the reason for the kids' involvement stemmed from the tremendous amounts of money available to those who chose to enter the drug trade.
Locked in a world with few options, in which chances of financial success are few and far between, drug dealers in effect become role models for some in the inner city. The grand funeral that honored the death of one of the drug kingpins in the Oakland area merely points to that reality.
Jackson speaks to this problem. He presents public policy proposals to increase the range of options that inner-city youths would have. In other words, for Jackson, the drug problem can only be solved by a national effort to revitalize major urban centers. That means better housing, education and job opportunities. In his words, "daycare and childcare on the frontside of life, instead of welfare and jailcare on the backside of life."
Now it is true that Jackson's famed "I Am Somebody" speech ("my mind is a pearl; I can do anything in the world") has proven to have a universal appeal. And his speeches at suburban high schools in which he asks those who have used drugs to admit it and come forward have been powerful.
Indeed, his son Yusef spoke to the latter aspect, when in his introduction to his father's address at the Democratic National Convention he said that too many members of his generation have chosen to spell "relief D-R-U-G-S rather than L-O-V-E."
But what Jackson omits in his discussion of the drug problem is just as revealing. He almost never mentions drug rehabilitation programs, or even the concept of rehabilitation. If anything, he's more likely to rely on something like conversion, in which the sin is confessed, forgiven and then washed away.
JACKSON also omits the law and order dimension of the drug problem. For many Americans, drugs and crime are synonymous. When they say that drugs are the number one issue, it is not altogether different from the elections of the late 1960s when law and order was the chief issue of the day.
Ueberroth speaks for all those who look on the drug problem in this context. For him, what is needed is a get-tough policy. Vice President George Bush's well-known taunting of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis for opposing the institution of the death penalty for drug kingpins highlights this attitude. As the baseball commissioner, Ueberroth has made a point of taking a tough stand against ballplayers who use drugs.
As a country, we are inclined to downplay differences, particularly when it comes to questions of class. Historians have shown that while the movement for temperance was framed as a national moral problem, it was in many ways a class phenomenon. And the resulting temperance laws amounted to an effort by the middle class to assert its hegemony.
The drug problem of today is similarly being treated as a general more question on which all Americans should be able to agree. But such is not the case. If the country is unanimous in crying out against the scourge of drugs, Americans see the problem differently.
At present, the two candidates for the post of Drug Czar represent two very distinct attitudes towards the problem of drugs. The one seeing in it the results of economic violence. The other finding evidence of permissiveness gone awry and the need for a return to law and order. And in the divergence between Ueberroth and Jackson lies the chasm, be it of class, color or principle, which separates most of America today.