Art Exhibit Confronts Race and the Drug War

By Sarah Beller 10/16/12

The War on Drugs has "accelerated" the criminalization of black Americans, art curator Mariame Kaba tells The Fix.

Mariame Kaba co-curated the exhibit,
Photo via

A new art exhibit, Black/Inside: A History of Captivity & Confinement in the US, is set to relay a powerful message about the relationship between the War on Drugs and the history of black criminalization and incarceration in America. The exhibit, which opens at the University of Illinois Chicago’s African American Cultural Center Gallery on October 23, will showcase a collection of photographs, postcards and newspaper articles from colonial times until the present. They were amassed over the past 15 years—initially as a hobby—by the exhibit's co-curator, Mariame Kaba. The War on Drugs has been central in “accelerating the way black people have been disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system since arriving in the colonies,” Kaba tells The Fix. An organizer, educator, writer and self-proclaimed “rabble rouser,” Kaba is also the Founding Director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a mission to end youth incarceration. She hopes that the exhibit will help people to better understand mass incarceration, and to examine the complicity of those supporting politicians whose laws "criminalize classes of people in an inequitable way."

"Are black people more likely to do drugs and sell drugs? No," says Kaba. "Are they more likely to be incarcerated? Yes." Referring to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the enormous differences between punishments for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, she points out that sentences remain drastically more severe for crack, at a rate of 18:1. “This disparity shows the arbitrary nature of these things,” she says. But in spite of a history of institutional inequality, she's not without hope. "We are at a moment when there are too many people behind bars, the system has overloaded," she says. "It cannot continue the way it has been." And she believes the country's current economic situation could actually help the cause: "This moment coincides with a difficult economic crisis in the country, so people who would regularly not pay attention or be on the same side are starting to talk about decriminalizing drugs and not involving the criminal justice system at all.”

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.