Affirmative Inaction

News & Politics

The war on drugs never came to my college dorm. Not because of insufficient enemies in sight -- for indeed there were plenty -- but rather because the drug war has rarely ever made its way to the cloistered residences of mostly white, well-off private school co-eds. Too busy busting the black and brown in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, I guess, to make a stop Uptown, where the Tulane freshmen on the 8th floor of Monroe Hall were busy filling up two foot bong chambers with pot smoke, and then inhaling until our eyes rolled back in our heads.

It's not like the drug warriors didn't know we were there. They've seen the studies on college drug use; they know what's going on in the dorms, in the frat houses, and in the cramped college apartments. The campus cops know, the Administration knows, and the city police know too. They know but they don't care; for the white and economically-advantaged, drugs have been essentially decriminalized for a long time.

Back in high school even, weekend parties at the homes of fellow white brethren would be routinely visited by police who had received a noise complaint. Although I find it hard to believe that they could have missed either the underage drinking or the smell of pot smoke hanging in the air, never once did they search anyone, raid the house, or make a bust. They would ask us politely to turn down the music, hop in their cruisers, and head down to the 'hood to arrest some folks who had made the mistake of doing their drugs somewhere other than our party.

Or on the road following the Grateful Dead in 1990 (don't ask): a traveling pharmaceutical warehouse if ever there was one. Everyone knew that the falafel stand was a front; that there was hash in the brownies; that nobody dances like that who isn't dosed out of their mind. But when I slid quietly into the beat-up Chevy in the parking lot to purchase my daily supply of psilocybin (hallucinogenic mushrooms, for those who don't know), I never worried about whether the dealer was a cop. After all, it was the Grateful Dead and the crowd was white; surely there had to be some black folks in Louisville to shake down; maybe a LL Cool J show to bust up.

Oh sure, I know there are some white college kids who have been busted in drug raids; and yes, some have even done time. I know one of these folks myself actually; arrested at a different University than my own for selling acid -- lots of it. And yes he went to prison; and now he's out; and he's the President of a company just five years after his release from the joint. Note to self: if I ever decide to sell drugs, make sure to be rich first, so I can have a nice range of opportunities waiting for me upon my release. I'm already white, so I figure I'm halfway home.

This is all to say that if we're going to understand the implications of the war on drugs, we have to go beyond the standard analysis. It's one thing, after all, to note the costs of this war to people of color -- and many writers have done a marvelous job of that, including Silja Talvi in this issue -- but it's quite another to recognize the flipside of that cost: that for every black or Latino or American Indian casualty in the drug war, there are thousands, or indeed millions of white folks who broke the same laws, did the same drugs, sold the same merchandise, and yet the closest they've been to a prison cell is watching OZ on a flat-screen TV.

Even in the midst of the insanity that is the war on drugs, there is white privilege. Not just class privilege -- for there are plenty of middle class black and brown folks wearing prison blues and plenty of poor and working class whites whose indulgence of narcotics gets ignored -- but race privilege. The kind of privilege that keeps one from being suspected (despite the studies that show whites are equally or more likely to use drugs than blacks and Latinos); keeps us from getting searched (despite the fact that according to the Department of Justice, whites are twice as likely as blacks to have drugs in our cars when we are searched); keeps us from getting arrested; and keeps us from going to jail. At the worst, it's off to rehab: 28 days and out; and then it's back to that two-foot bong; back to poppin' X at the club; back to makin' pipes out of Pepsi cans -- anything to get high. Crazy shit. And everyone knows it and looks the other way.

White privilege: the same privilege that makes Amsterdam a hip, bohemian, cosmopolitan hangout for world travelers looking for a good high; but renders South Central L.A. -- where you can also score some pretty good shit -- a place that white folks are afraid to even look at on a map. Not hip, not cool, and definitely not a tourist destination.

White privilege: the same privilege that renders low-income black folks "crackheads" in the eyes of much of white America while characterizing low-income whites as innocuous "Joe Six-packs" -- a reference to a nice, legal drug -- no matter how much of the hard stuff these folks ingest.

Not that I'm suggesting a new front for the drug war, of course. It's just that so long as we allow a public policy to criminalize entire generations of youth of color, while ignoring the equally illegal proclivities of their pale-skinned counterparts, we not only guarantee that the war on drugs can never succeed (since it's tough to win a war when you ignore 76% of the folks whose behavior classifies them technically as the adversary), but we also further entrench racial inequity and de facto apartheid in the criminal justice system. Indeed, this apartheid extends far beyond the justice system, since a drug conviction severely diminishes a person's prospects for future employment, stable families, and even a person's ability to participate in civic life as a voter.

It's important to quantify this kind of thing. Anecdotes are nice, of course: they illustrate points, and I've got lots of 'em. Like the fact that I saw more drugs on the high school competitive debate circuit in one month than I ever saw in an entire year, working in public housing as a community organizer.

But anecdotes can't make points of their own accord. So it's more effective, in some ways, to take a look at the statistics on who gets arrested for drugs, and compare that to the available data on who actually uses drugs, or sells them. By doing so, we can not only gain insight into the devastation wrought upon people of color by the drug warriors, but can also begin to quantify the numbers of whites whose presence in the free world, and without an arrest record, is merely a matter of racial preference: affirmative inaction, if you will, on the part of law enforcement.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of whites and 6.4% of blacks, age twelve and older, are current drug users; so, too, for 5.3% of Latinos that age. This translates into approximately 10.7 million whites, 1.9 million blacks, and 1.3 million Latinos who have used drugs in the past month. Whites are 76% of current users, while blacks are 13.5% and Latino/as are 9.2% of current drug users. Combined, these people of color comprise less than 23% of all drug users, but over the past several years, have come to represent 90% of all persons sent to jail or prison for a drug possession charge.

Beyond percentages, what does this mean? Look at it this way. In 2000, there were a little more than one million arrests for drugs in the United States. Most of these arrests resulted in state or local drug charges, although there were also about 33,000 federal drug arrests. While the federal arrests were almost all for distribution and manufacture, the state and local level cases were overwhelmingly for mere possession. Indeed, roughly 75% of all drug arrests annually are possession arrests. This means that in 2000, there were essentially 750,000 arrests for possession alone.

Of the total, thirty-five percent of those arrested (roughly 350,000) were African American. If seventy-five percent of these were for possession, this means that approximately 263,000 blacks were arrested in 2000 for possession alone; this, despite being less than 14% of users (and thus, possessors of narcotics at any given moment).

In that same year, data tells us that whites were a little over 64% of all persons arrested for drugs. But there's a problem: namely, those the government classifies as "Hispanic" are rolled in with the white folks. Furthermore, given what we know from federal drug arrest data (where Hispanics arrested are looked at separately), the percentage of Latinos arrested for drugs is well above their share of the racially-"white" population, and well above their share of actual drug offenders. Even if we assume that Latinos are only arrested for drugs at a rate that is double their share of the population (a conservative guess given federal data where they comprise nearly half of all arrests), this would mean that at roughly eleven percent of the 12-and-over "white" population, Latino "whites" would represent at least twenty-two percent of drug arrests: roughly 220,000. Of these, at least three-quarters (or 165,000) would be for possession alone.

This would leave approximately 447,000 drug arrests of non-Hispanic whites, or 43% of the total arrests for drugs in 2000. Of these, 335,000 or so would be for possession alone. In other words, the group that comprises 76% of all drug users would represent well under half of all possession arrests.

If we assume that the various law enforcement agencies have the resources to arrest 750,000 people each year for drug possession, calculating the privilege of being a white user isn't very difficult. If enforcement followed relative rates of violation, more than three-quarters of those busted would be white. That would mean 570,000 white folks arrested each year for drug possession, as opposed to the 335,000 currently arrested: a difference of 235,000 whites every year, not being arrested, not getting a record, not being prosecuted, and not facing jail time, irrespective of their actions. By the same token, there would be only a little more than 100,000 blacks busted for possession each year: a number that is less than four-tenths as large as the 263,000 African Americans actually getting popped for possession. For Latinos, enforcement based on rates of violation would bring less than 70,000 possession arrests annually, as opposed to the low-ball estimate of 165,000 for 2000.

Imagine what this kind of reality would do for the complexion of the burgeoning jail and prison industry; what impact it would have on common stereotypes of criminality and drug use in particular.

Even among drug dealers, evidence suggests that blacks are only 16% of persons who sell drugs, while whites (including Hispanics) are 82%. Even if we make the absurdly high estimation that half of that white total is ethnically Hispanic, this would still mean that around four in ten dealers are Caucasian. Yet, at the federal level, where most of the distribution arrests are made, only one-fourth of those busted are white. Over the course of the last decade, that would mean that tens of thousands of whites who sold drugs escaped notice, arrest and long-term confinement.

Over the course of the nearly two-decades-long war on drugs, it is no exaggeration then to suggest that a few million white people have benefited directly from the racially-selective prosecution of said war. That is the measure of white privilege: a measure that has allowed those millions to continue to lead their lives, make money, get educations, start families and maintain them, vote for candidates for political office who will pass laws relating to drug policy, and generally escape the stigma that comes with a mug shot and prison ID number.

That's millions of white people, every bit as guilty as those of color, but who by virtue of their freedom -- a gift from a justice system that ignores their wrongdoing -- have been able to make hundreds of millions of dollars in income, and accumulate wealth, property, and additional advantages, relative to the equally substantial million or so who are black and brown and have been unable to accumulate the same because they instead have been labeled drug felons.

Indeed, much of white America owes damn near everything we have to the existence of racism as the framework for the War on Drugs. Without it, we'd be doing time.

That said, does white America really want to end institutional racism? Are we really prepared to give up the advantages to which we have grown accustomed? Do we really want to be treated as merely individuals? Or do we deep down want to be treated like members of a group -- so long as the group is the one being afforded the free pass?

Are we prepared for what ending the war on drugs would mean, including forcing us to actually compete for jobs and college slots, and homes with an awful lot of people who up to now have been viewed as surplus, and written off? After all, a hundred thousand or so less blacks carted off to jail each year is a hundred thousand or so who will suddenly become available to move next door or date your daughter. And we know how most white folks feel about that.

And if it's too much to think about, we can always just pop another nitrous oxide canister, or hook up a gas mask to the two-foot bong (because two feet, after all, just isn't enough) and bake ourselves into oblivion. Who's going to stop us, after all?

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at

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