Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, regarded as one of the most influential women to hold the position, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 94. She will be remembered for many things, especially for those who look back fondly at the Reagan era. But amongst African-Americans, what she perhaps will best be remembered for is the “Just Say No” campaign against youth drug abuse.
“Say yes to life,” Nancy Reagan said, “and when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.”
“Just Say No” seems like a quaint slogan from our vantage point 30 years forward. And it sounds like a throwback to another era, when the war on drugs was just starting to kick in, leading to the incarceration explosion in communities of color.
Nancy Reagan recalled that the phrase came after she met with a group of children. According to the Ronald Reagan Library, this is how it happened: “A little girl raised her hand,” Mrs. Reagan recalled, “and said, ’Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ’Well, you just say no.’ And there it was born.”
An advertising agency worked on the campaign and transmitted the message throughout American popular culture. During the 1980s, the First Lady made appearances on television shows such as Diff’rent Strokes and Punky Bruster to talk about anti-drug efforts and spoke at hundreds of events.
Then there were the public service announcements.
And even a video featuring a cartoon version of Michael Jackson with the Flintstone Kids:
By the end of President Reagan’s second term in office, over 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs had been formed. Some critics believed that “Just Say No” was too simplistic an approach to the problem of drugs and questioned its effectiveness. While the Reagan Foundation claimed that cocaine use among high school students dropped in the mid-1980s, other sources have argued that students who participated in drug abstinence programs were as likely to use drugs as those who were not involved in these educational programs. Still others pointed to alternatives such as harm reduction programs that encourage safer drug use.
Most of all, the “Just Say No” initiative made the public scared of drugs. People identified drugs as the number one problem in America, paving the way for the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration, including more and more people — black people — imprisoned for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses.
The Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, enacted right after the First Lady’s campaign kicked off, resulted in zero tolerance policies and the introduction of cops in the schools, the arrest of black and Latino kids for minor infractions and the criminalization of whole communities. Children became ensnared in the criminal justice system, and they still are today, handicapped and marked for life by a prison record. All of this paved the way for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill under Bill Clinton, turning the U.S. into the nation with the world’s largest prison population — and $51 billion spent on the failed war on drugs each year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. That war has claimed 100,000 lives in Mexico. And in 2014, more than 1.5 million Americans were arrested drug offenses, 83 percent of them for minor drug possession.
However, aside from her anti-drug crusade, Nancy Reagan was known for other things as well. For example, she was a champion for stem-cell research to fight Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicted her husband. In addition, she urged President Reagan to speak up on the AIDS crisis after the death of actor Rock Hudson, to fess up to his responsibility for the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages scandal and apologize for it, and to improve relations with the Soviet Union.
These days, America has come a long way, as there is a move to decriminalize drugs, legalize marijuana and recognize addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal justice problem. Nancy Reagan will always be remembered as someone who got the ball rolling and started the national conversation on drug abuse. However, whether that conversation ended up helping or hurting African-Americans is an entirely different matter.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove