White Like She: Reflections on Racism and Privilege in the War on Drugs

For the superstitious, Friday the 13th is a day fraught with bad luck. For Sarah Furay, that day came a week early and was Friday, November 6th. On that fateful day, local police from College Station Texas served a warrant on her apartment and searched her room, where they found “31.5 grams of packaged cocaine, 126 grams of high grade marijuana, 29 ‘ecstasy’ tablets, methamphetamine and a 60 doses of a drug similar to LSD.” She was then booked in the Brazos County Jail, and charged with three counts of manufacture/delivery of a controlled substance and one count of drug possession. Interestingly, while a search of her phone confirmed her intent to sell drugs and her bedroom contained “packaging material, two digital scales and a handwritten drug price list,” she was not charged with intent to distribute. Nor was she charged with conspiracy, or any of the other common charges thrown at those arrested for running large-scale drug operations. Instead, her bail was set at a modest $39,000, which she paid after one day in jail, and is now safely at home with her father, the DEA agent. Though she has been quite lightly charged, her combined maximum sentence could be 215 years in prison. Given her connections to the DEA, one is left to wonder, how bad is this really going to be for Sarah?

William Furay has stated that the matter of his daughter’s charges and arrest are “personal,” and not fit for public comment. The arrests of other drug traffickers are another story, and Mr. Furay has been quoted saying “you don’t see many drug traffickers retire … either they end up in prison, or they end up dead.” This leaves few options for his daughter, and none of them seem one a caring father would wish on his kin. Ironically, while her father was eliminating the competition by day, young Sarah was acting to fill the demand vacuum her father’s day job created every night.

Some outlets have speculated that her family connections, as well as the benefit of white privilege, are the reasons she got off so lightly. Her family connections are what allowed Sarah to walk on bail without being seen as a flight risk.  Abby Haglage, writing for The Daily Beast, writes that “when white girls deal drugs they walk,” and states that “rather than a criminal act, her offense was called ‘an entrepreneurial approach to avoiding student loan debt.’” At it wasn’t just the combined privilege of family status and race that worked for Sarah; she was working another type of privilege as well – beauty.

The title of “most adorable coke dealer” isn’t a very difficult crown to claim when your competition is guys who look like Pablo Escobar. Regardless, it is a crown you certainly want to claim to garner sympathy from an easily swayed jury.

Pretty privilege manifests in many forms, such as a police officer thinking you are cute and giving you a warning instead of a ticket. This case, and the media attention given to Sarah, are the epitome of pretty privilege. “Internet-famous ‘adorable drug kingin,'” reads one headline, “World’s most ‘adorable drug kingpin,'” reads another. Not one headline reads like this one about Kemba Smith, a black woman arrested for non-violent charges related to her boyfriend’s cocaine sales — her story has been covered instead as “Kemba Smith’s Hard Time” and “‘Kemba’s Nightmare’ was her own creation.

But was it her own creation? If you aren’t familiar with the tragic story of Kemba Smith, settle in for a tale. Kemba was a bright college student, attending Hampton University, and when she was 19 she met a man named Peter Hall who would be her boyfriend on-and-off for the next three years. Unknown to Kemba, Peter was running a multi-million dollar cocaine enterprise and was on the FBI’s most wanted list. What was known to Kemba is that Peter was violently abusive and she feared for her life, and the life of her future-child. In 1993, Peter was arrested for possession of crack-cocaine and his business partners requested Kemba to deliver $75,000 so he could make bail. That delivery of bail money would end up being the fateful decision that would be used against Kemba to charge her with a criminal conspiracy. In 1994, when she was seven months pregnant, Kemba was sentenced to 24 years and a half years in prison as a first-time, non-violent offender. In 2000, after just over six years in federal prison, Kemba had her sentence commuted by President Bill Clinton just before he left office and she was able to be with her son as a free woman for the first time in her life.

Sarah is also a nineteen year old college student. While the media didn’t focus on Kemba’s physical features the same way they have latched on to Sarah, Kemba was also a pretty young woman. The only striking differences between these two girls (other than a family connection to the DEA) is that one is black and the other is white. What a huge difference skin color and family connections can make. There is an extreme disparity in the cases of these two women, one is being treated like an entrepreneurial prom-queen, while the other was told she created the nightmare of her own abusive relationship. That media narrative alone is troubling, but the difference in justice we have seen is much more worrisome.

Kemba recently spoke at the opening plenary for the Drug Policy Alliance international drug policy conference, where she spoke about how she was privileged to have a support network that fought for her freedom — a privilege most women in prison don’t have. Most women in jail are on their own, and the vast majority of them aren’t white or connected to the DEA. While Kemba was lucky enough to get out early, it is a forgone conclusion that Sarah Furay will not see her full sentence, and while it took Kemba years of building pressure to get clemency, Sarah will not have to try very hard for a light sentence to match her lighter skin color.

A Note About The Title of this article: The title of this article is borrowed from the comic book, White Like She, which is a play on the title of the book, White Like Me, which further is a play off the title of the groundbreaking book by John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, where a white man medically darkened his skin to pass as a black man and traveled around the deep south during the 1950’s.


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