Thursday, October 21, 2010
White Privilege and the "War on Drugs"
By Joanna (JuJuBe)
When I was a college student, I was caught with half an ounce of marijuana in my dorm room. From what my neighbors told me, you could smell the blunt I was smoking all the way up the hallway and into the elevators. The dorm adviser came to my door with two police officers and told me that if I had anymore drugs in my room, I needed to turn them over to the police. I went into my room, grabbed the rest of the bag, which I had purchased just hours earlier, and handed it over to the police. They had a look of surprise on their faces and asked me why I just handed the bag to them, and I responded that the dorm adviser had told me to. They looked a bit uncomfortable, wrote me a ticket to appear in court, and left the premises. The whole dorm knew about it the next day. Most of the people I associated with laughed at me because I had done nothing to keep from getting caught. Some of my friends were angry. I did not understand why at the time, but I look back now and understand the reason for their frustration. In two, simple, but very charged words: White Privilege.
Studies have shown that white people are actually MORE LIKELY than Black or Hispanic people to participate in drug related activities, including possession, use and distribution. Yet, our jails are filled with Black and Hispanic men, victims of a so-called “War on Drugs” that is waged predominantly in minority communities. What my friends in college knew at the time, but what took me many years to realize was that my white skin is the reason that I was not handcuffed, arrested and placed in a cell that night. It was also the reason that a month later, when I was caught shoplifting, I was written up, again given a ticket to appear in court, and sent home. Not arrested, not handcuffed, not sent to spend the night in a cell. When it came time to appear in court, the marijuana possession charges were dismissed. I had done some research, informed the public defender assigned to me that the dorm adviser was acting as an agent of the state, and had told me to turn over any drugs in my possession without first informing me of my rights. I now believe that the charges were dismissed not because of the cogency of my argument but because of white privilege.
The media, the police, the government, they all put a Black or Brown face on drug crime in America. Not because Black and Brown people are more likely to use drugs, not because they are more likely to sell drugs, but because they are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug charges. Simply put, the system in this country is invested in labeling Black and Brown people criminals, while exonerating white people who commit the same acts. The media would like us to believe that drugs are somehow more dangerous and more prevalent in minority communities. In actuality, a middle class white business man is more like to have used or sold drugs in his lifetime then a low income Black or Hispanic man. White people are more likely to be admitted to hospitals and die from drug overdoses then their Black and Hispanic counterparts. Yet police concentrate their drug enforcement efforts in low income minority communities. The criminal injustice system warehouses Black and Hispanic men in a prison system that is larger than any other country in the world. No country in the world imprisons as many of its minority group members as the US. All in the guise of “getting tough on crime”
In reality, this “War on Drugs” and its methods of enforcement have nothing to do with getting tough on crime. Even when the crime rate plummets, Black and Hispanic men are shuffled off to prison in droves. When they are released, they are barred from job opportunities, banned from housing, and prohibited from receiving any sort of benefits from Social Services. Many who are labeled “felons” are stricken off the rolls of eligible voters. They are not allowed to serve on a jury. All because they were convicted of a crime that they would not have even been charged with if they had white skin. The “War on Drugs” is creating a racial caste system without using terminology referring to race. But it is there. It is there in the way the police wage this so called “War on Drugs”, concentrating on low income, minority communities. It is there in the way the court system sentences individuals who are convicted of drug related crimes, giving much harsher sentences to low income Black and Hispanic men. It is there in the attitudes of white Americans who automatically assign a Black or Brown face to the category of “criminal”.
I remember a few years back, being told by a friend that my sister was a “drug dealer” because she would on occasion sell small amounts of drugs to her friends. Although I like to think of myself as an open minded, nonjudgmental person, it gave me pause when I realized that even I thought of a drug dealer as someone who was out on the corner slinging dope to strangers. Society has programmed white people to automatically think of the “other” guy as the one responsible for crime, responsible for the supposed scourge of drugs affecting this nation, when in actuality., it is our sisters and brothers, our next door neighbors and friends who are responsible for more drug activity than any “other” on whom we wish to pin the blame.
For more information on this topic, I strongly encourage you to read the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.