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When the “War on Drugs” Devastated Atlanta Black Neighborhoods, Teachers Filled in the Void

By Shani Robinson and Anna Simonton

School corridor

Teacher Appreciation Week reminds us to thank our educators who play a pivotal role in our children’s lives, who make a difference in their development and well-being. We need to give a huge shout-out to the Atlanta teachers who tried to help out the Black kids whose neighborhoods and communities were devastated by a history of urban renewal and Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” As Shani Robinson and coauthor Anna Simonton illustrate in this excerpt from None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators, this is the context in which the Atlanta Cheating Scandal happened. Robinson was one of the teachers wrongfully convicted in the scandal.


The concerted efforts by Atlanta’s political and business leaders to diminish the stability of black neighborhoods for their own gain undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the schools. Both the children who were uprooted and those who remained were increasingly deprived of the things a healthy community offers—accessible goods and services, economic opportunities, vibrant public spaces, and a supportive social fabric. Teachers and school employees were left to fill in the void, which would only expand in the years following urban renewal.

As Atlanta’s black neighborhoods were still reeling from urban renewal—or as James Baldwin aptly called it, “Negro removal”—in the late 1960s, a new threat was forming. Civil rights victories had shaken the apartheid social order of the United States, and, in response, conservative politicians sought to leverage the rage and fear of whites who thought their world was falling apart. Richard Nixon exemplified this tactic in his 1968 presidential campaign, which he built around the claim that the nation faced a crisis of law and order.

In his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, Nixon linked the supposed lack of law and order to the revolutionary fervor of the moment. He referenced the civil rights and antiwar movements, painting both as lawless, practically in the same breath that he vowed to “open a new front against the filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers.” Years later, a top Nixon aide (who was by that time working at an engineering firm in Atlanta) told a journalist that Nixon’s subsequent crackdown on drugs was aimed at quashing political dissent. In stunningly blunt terms, he explained: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

During his presidency, Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” and poured federal funds into ramping up a law enforcement offensive against drug crime. He created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), pushed a bill through Congress allowing “no-knock warrants” so that police could raid homes without announcing themselves, and rejected the recommendation of a congressional commission to decriminalize marijuana. In so doing, Nixon laid the groundwork for a racialized blitzkrieg on drugs during the Reagan era.

Under President Ronald Reagan, who announced his continuation of the war on drugs in 1982, federal budgets for antidrug law enforcement swelled. Between 1980 and 1991, the annual FBI antidrug budget went from $8 million to $181 million, and both the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Administration saw increases from tens of millions of dollars to over one billion each. Meanwhile, federal funding for drug treatment programs shriveled up, as did funding for a slew of social welfare programs that the Reagan administration cut.

Reagan justified his “war on drugs” with alarmist rhetoric that often focused on the boom in crack, a solid, smokable form of powdered cocaine. It was so potent that small doses could be sold for extremely low prices, opening a market for a robust street trade in poor areas.

Crack hit the streets at a time when black communities in Atlanta and throughout the country were in turmoil. Their social fabric had been shredded by urban renewal projects, and corporations were boosting profits by sending manufacturing jobs overseas, where they could exploit cheaper labor. Black men were hit hardest by this economic shift, as nearly half of black men in the workforce in 1980 held blue-collar jobs. Income inequality between black people and white people, which had narrowed during the 1960s, expanded again. In 1980, the median income for white people was more than three times greater than that of black people; by 1990, it was more than five times higher.

It was in this context of displacement and economic insecurity that crack entered black communities like Mechanicsville, with disastrous results. There were a few teachers who had worked at Dunbar Elementary School for decades, and they told me that the advent of crack demarcated two completely different eras for the school and the Mechanicsville neighborhood. Before crack, parental involvement was high, students were more or less studious, and the school had a “gifted” program for kids who excelled. Once crack took hold, that all began to change. Parents became estranged, and there were more single moms who didn’t have time to be involved in their kids’ education. Children started coming to school unprepared, falling asleep in class, and were generally losing interest in learning, seemingly because their lives at home were increasingly volatile. The world between their homes and school was changing too. One teacher told me she used to walk through the neighborhood with kids and visit their families until the drug trade became so heavy that walking around Mechanicsville was no longer safe. Some of the elementary school students were drawn into the drug scene, recruited as lookouts or as couriers carrying drugs from one person to another.

As waves of despairing, destabilized people became addicted to crack, Reagan turned a public health crisis into a purported crisis of “law and order” designed to put black people in cages. With the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the Reagan administration established mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes involving crack and cocaine that created a huge disparity in how the two were punished. Crimes involving just five grams of crack, which was associated with black people, carried the same minimum sentence—five years—as crimes involving five hundred grams of cocaine, which was associated with white people, even though the two drugs are virtually the same. Follow-up legislation two years later would deepen the disparity, establishing a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison for simple possession of more than five grams of crack, while the maximum sentence for simple possession of any amount of cocaine was only one year in prison. The 1986 law also channeled $2 billion into antidrug policing, permitted the death penalty for some drug crimes, and militarized narcotics control.

The effects were swift in coming. By 1991, the United States incarcerated more people than any country ever before in history, and most of the people behind bars were black. That year, one in four young black men were under the control of the criminal justice system.

This was the world my students inhabited. A world of close-knit black communities unraveled by city planners and their corporate influencers, black homes lost to expressways, black parents in despair succumbing to addiction and locked in cages for profit, black children left to fend for themselves and treated like hardened criminals, a court system with a penchant for theatrics and an acquiescent media industry to feed it spectators, white politicians suppressing black votes and gunning for the criminal justice system to swallow black families whole, and an education system telling black students to forget all that, just bubble in the right answer.


About the Authors 

Shani Robinson, an alumna of Tennessee State University, is an advocate for troubled youth and their families. She taught in the Atlanta Public Schools system for three years. Follow her on Twitter at @ShaniAuthor.

Anna Simonton is an independent journalist based in Atlanta and is an editor fo r Scalawag magazine. Her work has been published by the NationIn These Times, and AlterNet, among others.