by Richard Leader
Given that white drug users are spared the relentless prosecution and long prison terms reserved for African Americans, are such whites beneficiaries of a racist system? The author believes so. “Until the experience of drug use is the same for people of all races, whites engaging in the activity are doing something akin to drinking from a 'whites only' water fountain.”
When Lighting Up is Drinking from the Whites-Only Fountain
by Richard Leader
“Not once have I heard a white proponent of drug legalization state that he or she is abstaining until all people face the same risks.”
It’s the kind of story made for the internet: a high school student delivers a speech on legalizing marijuana and caps it off by smoking a joint, right in front of a teacher and wide-eyed classmates. The story goes viral and a week later it’s printed in papers across the nation. It gets top billing by the 24 hour news networks.
The then-anonymous student became a folk hero of sorts. Internet forums lit up in honor of the 11th grader — and in more than one way. While the initial report didn’t mention the student’s name, the paper didn’t make any effort at all to conceal gender in the interest of privacy.
Then again, they didn’t have to: I’ll let you guess whether our intrepid patriot (yes, I’ve actually seen that noun applied several times) is a girl or a boy.
I’m sure you didn’t need much time making up your mind.
I certainly didn’t need much time, either, to guess that he’s white.
Turns out, I was correct, just as you likely were in your own assumption.
The stunt has white-male written all over it. I should know: I’m a white male myself. You can see it in his straight-faced claim that he didn’t do it for attention. You can see it in his imagination that a simple school project made him a true actor in the political process. He wasn’t even shy when concluding a list of “famous marijuana supporters” — the usual list of hemp growing presidents and statesmen — with the addition of his own name. And you can see it in his belief that the benefits of his actions would outweigh any personal costs he might suffer. His deed was a perfect picture of entitlement.
Entitlement doesn’t necessarily make an act wrong although it seldom pushes anything in the direction of right. Entitlement does, however, require a thorough examination of the context of an act, regardless of its validity. The white liberal, leftist, or progressive (whichever brand is currently in vogue) take on illicit drugs is wholly bereft of such context.
“His deed was a perfect picture of entitlement.”
To be sure, talking about race is in vogue when it comes to speaking about our “drug problem.” The talking points are repeated so often that most of us can recite them by heart: The rate of drug use is consistent across racial lines and yet non-white offenders, especially Blacks, are disproportionately charged, convicted, and imprisoned. Cocaine and crack are virtually the same substance and yet the form associated with minorities carries penalties that are absurdly higher. I could go on.
The problem with such arguments is that, in them, only Black folk have a race. Whites trotting out these statistics rarely contextualize their own part in that process. It’s rather painless to matter-of-factly state that other whites run prisons and that you, personally, would prefer people not be arrested for marijuana offenses.Thus an argument about institutional racism has no actors. It’s a racism with no beneficiaries. This particular racism happens only because a bunch of ugly, rich old white guys — certainly not me! — are buzz kills.
Whites making these arguments do so as if they in no way benefit from minority imprisonment. (Whether that means less job competition, being assumed more law abiding by co-workers, bosses, and police, etc.) And thus the focus remains on the larger problem: the difficulty we all face, together, as one nation under God, of being unduly inconvenienced when seeking out marijuana.
I’m not an opponent of decriminalization or even the legalization of pot — although I remain especially skeptical of the ecological claims made by proponents, after reading what actual farmers say about the long term costs associated with such fast growing plants. Whether advocates are right or wrong, it’s the context of their claims that concerns me.
“It’s rather painless to matter-of-factly state that other whites run prisons and that you, personally, would prefer people not be arrested for marijuana offenses.”
Perhaps some whites have the best interest of everyone in our society in mind when they talk about disproportionate drug sentencing. But even “bootstrapping” libertarians, who abhor identity politics with every ounce of bile in their bodies, find these arguments appealing, if overly sentimental (i.e. feminine). Not even the Bob Barr crowd is above playing the “race card” to get baked.
Given the reality of disproportionate drug sentencing, I’m prepared to make a bold statement: until the experience of drug use is the same for people of all races, whites engaging in the activity are doing something akin to drinking from a “whites only” water fountain. Yes, I just said it’s racist for whites to do illicit drugs.
I’ve been enmeshed in progressive politics for a bit over a decade now. In that time, I’ve met straight people who have chosen to abstain from marriage until it’s legally available to all gays and lesbians. I’ve met folks who have given up eating meat, or have drastically lowered their consumption of it, not because they believe it’s intrinsically murder (though it may very well be), but because it’s currently globally unsustainable and an unjust use of resources. I’ve even met some, although fewer in number these days, who reject pornography because it’s inherently exploitive in a patriarchal culture that values males and females differently. (It must be said that High Times and damn near all of pot-culture is sexist and pornographic.) I, myself, have followed suit in all three examples because of my own commitment to social justice — and more. This isn’t seen as particularly noteworthy or uncommon.
But not once have I heard a white proponent of drug legalization state that he or she is abstaining until all people face the same risks, or none, while lighting up. Not once. And yet not a day goes by without most of us reading some white person invoke “disproportionate sentencing” in their own quest to get high.
“It must be said that High Times and damn near all of pot-culture is sexist and pornographic.”
I remember something Wesley Snipes once said about Woody Harrelson. (This was ages ago and I’m unable to recover the exact quotation.) He said something akin to, “He’s a friend, and I love the guy, but his priorities, this obsession with weed as the most pressing issue of our time, is out of whack and entirely white.” At least that’s the message I took away from his words. Of the two, even though Harrelson has made a career out of smoking and talking about smoking (something that should give police a hint as to whether or not he’s holding), Snipes is the one constantly under the watchful gaze of the law.
Whites who employ racial factors as a reason for legalization — even when they assert that all races have similar rates of drug use — run the risk of further establishing illicit drugs as a key component of the “minority experience” in their own minds and in that of other whites. Barack Obama certainly didn’t do himself any favors when he snickered and giggled when his precious internet bounced up the topic of marijuana as the most pressing issue of our time, but it’s clear that many of his loyal constituents thought they were electing a pimp and not a president. The supposedly least racist generation of whites in American history was sorely disappointed in him not acting “black” enough for their taste. (To be sure, Obama’s exploitation of his own personal story of drug use, whether real or contrived, is close to this topic, although perhaps not germane for a white person to criticize at length.)
When that student finished his speech and reached for his joint, he was exercising white privilege. He was using the whites-only facilities. Even if you find his actions heroic, patriotic, or even genius (I read one person state that the kid has the makings of an excellent criminal defense attorney), that context remains. Lighting that joint was a celebration of white power.
“Lighting that joint was a celebration of white power.”
I’m not saying that whites shouldn’t ever be in favor of legalizing one drug or another. Nor am I demanding that whites refuse to publicly advocate for such causes. I’m also not condemning white users with medicinal needs. While I’m sure most of us would agree that the implementation of medicinal marijuana is racist and classist within our society (and would continue to be even after across-the-board legalization because the health insurance industry is racist and classist), people living in unbearable pain are often precluded from entering into meaningful sociological discourse. It makes little sense for someone to entirely give up the ability to be a political actor in order to make a political point.
Instead, I’m asking that that all of these subjects be handled in a holistic manner. Moreover, this is something that should be expressed equally in our personal behavior. Stop drinking from the fountain if you’re going to demand change.
Richard Leader is a writer from Buffalo, New York. He is the founder of AdonisMirror.com, a pro-radical feminist journal, and can be contacted at [email protected].