The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs

with Matt Lassiter - Professor of History, University of Michigan

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

4:00 - 5:30pm, Humanities Gateway 1030


The public is invited to the talk "The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs", featuring Matt Lassiter, Professor of History at the University of Michigan. The talk is based on Dr. Lassiter's new book of the same name with Princeton University Press.

This event is sponsored by the Department of History, UCI Humanities Center; Center in Law, Society, and Culture; Center on Law, Equality, and Race; Center for Medical Humanities; and the Department of Political Science.

Book Overview

Since the 1950s, the American war on drugs has positioned white middle-class youth as sympathetic victims of illegal drug markets who need rehabilitation instead of incarceration whenever they break the law. The Suburban Crisis traces how politicians, the media, and grassroots political activists crusaded to protect white families from perceived threats while criminalizing and incarcerating urban minorities, and how a troubling legacy of racial injustice continues to inform the war on drugs today.

In this incisive political history, Matthew Lassiter shows how the category of the “white middle-class victim” has been as central to the politics and culture of the drug war as racial stereotypes like the “foreign trafficker,” “urban pusher,” and “predatory ghetto addict.” He describes how the futile mission to safeguard and control white suburban youth shaped the enactment of the nation’s first mandatory-minimum drug laws in the 1950s, and how soaring marijuana arrests of white Americans led to demands to refocus on “real criminals” in inner cities. The 1980s brought “just say no” moralizing in the white suburbs and militarized crackdowns in urban centers.

The Suburban Crisis reveals how the escalating drug war merged punitive law enforcement and coercive public health into a discriminatory system for the social control of teenagers and young adults, and how liberal and conservative lawmakers alike pursued an agenda of racialized criminalization.

Book Website


Matt Lassiter, Professor of History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan, is a scholar of the twentieth-century United States with a research and teaching focus on political history, urban/suburban studies, racial and social inequality, and the history of policing and the carceral state. His most recent book, The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs, was published in 2023 by Princeton University Press. He is also author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006); coeditor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (Oxford University Press, 2009); and lead author of the website exhibit of Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era (U-M Carceral State Project, 2021). Lassiter is co-director of the U-M Carceral State Project and co-PI of its Documenting Criminalization, Confinement, and Resistance research initiative. He is also director of the affiliated Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, which involves undergraduate and graduate student researchers in collaborative public engagement projects.