Affirmative Inaction: Racial Preference and the War on Drugs

Published in LIP Magazine,, 8/24/02.

The war on drugs never came to my college dorm, and not for a lack of enemies in sight (trust me, there were plenty), but rather because the drug war rarely makes 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 to make a stop uptown, where the Tulane freshmen on the 8th floor of Monroe Hall were filling two-foot bong chambers with pot smoke, 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, frat houses, and cramped apartments. The 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, parties at the homes of white students would be routinely visited by police who had received a noise complaint. Although I find it hard to believe they could have missed 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 to turn down the music, hop in their cruisers, then head down to the ‘hood to arrest folks who had made the mistake of doing their drugs somewhere other than our party.

Oh sure, there are some white kids who have been busted in drug raids, and some have even done time. I know one of these folks actually, arrested 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 sell drugs, make sure to be rich first, so that in case I get caught I can have a nice range of opportunities waiting for me upon my release from jail. 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 to note the costs of this war to people of color, but it’s quite another to recognize the flipside of that cost: that for every black or Latino casualty in the drug war, there are scores 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; the kind that keeps us 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 worst, it’s off to rehab: 28 days and out, and then 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; and everyone knows it and looks the other way.

Not that I’m suggesting we should open up a new white front in the drug war. 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 seventy-six percent of the folks whose behavior classifies them as the adversary), but we also further entrench racial inequity in the justice system. Indeed in more than the justice system, since a drug conviction also has ramifications for future employment, stable families, and even one’s ability to participate in civic life as a voter.

But 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 how I saw more drugs on the high school debating circuit in a month than I saw in an entire year, working in public housing as a community organizer. Yet, anecdotes can’t make points on their own. So it’s nice to look at the stats on who gets arrested for drugs and compare that to the data on who actually uses drugs, or sells them. By doing so, one 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 2001 data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4 percent of whites and 6.4 percent of blacks, twelve and older, are current drug users; so too for 5.3 percent of Latinos that age. This translates into approximately 10.7 million whites, 1.9 million blacks, and 1.3 million Latino/as who have used drugs in the past month. Whites are seventy-six percent of current users, while blacks are 13.5 percent and Latino/as are 9.2 percent of current drug users. Combined, these people of color comprise less than twenty-three percent of all drug users, but over the past several years have come to represent ninety percent of all persons jailed or imprisoned for a drug charge. Meanwhile, whites, at more than three-fourths of all users, make up only ten percent of those locked down for a drug offense.

Beyond percentages, what does this mean? Well, in 2000 there were roughly one million arrests for drugs in the U.S. Of these, approximately seventy-five percent (750,000) were for possession only. If arrest rates were consistent with the rates at which various racial groups use drugs, roughly seventy-six percent of those arrested for possession would have been white, 13.5 percent would have been black, and 9.2 percent would have been Latino. This would then translate into roughly 570,000 whites, 100,000 blacks, and 70,000 Latinos arrested for possession.

But in truth, the numbers looked nothing like this at all. In 2000, approximately 350,000 blacks were arrested on drug charges. If seventy-five percent of these were for possession, this means that a little more than 260,000 African Americans were busted that year for possession alone. This represents over a third of all possession arrests, despite the fact that blacks are less than fourteen percent of all drug users, and is 2.6 times larger than the number of blacks who would have been arrested had arrest rates followed usage rates. Although data indicates that whites were a little over sixty-four percent of all persons arrested for drugs in 2000, this figure obscures an important reality: namely, those whom the government classifies as “Hispanic” are rolled in with the white folks for the purpose of state level drug arrest figures, meaning that the arrest rate for persons typically viewed as “white” (at least by other whites) is far lower.

Given what we know from federal drug arrest data (where Hispanics are looked at separately), the percentage of Latinos arrested for drugs is well above their share of the population, and well above their share of actual drug offenders. Even if we assume that Latinos are arrested for drugs at a rate that is merely 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 population classified as white, Latinos would represent at least twenty-two percent of drug arrests, or roughly 165,000 arrests in 2000 for possession. This would leave approximately 325,000 possession arrests of non-Hispanic whites in 2000, or forty-three percent of the total arrests for drugs that year, for a group that comprises seventy-six percent of all users.

From this point it is quite simple to calculate the magnitude of white privilege within the war on drugs. If we assume that law enforcement has the capacity to arrest 750,000 people annually for drug possession, and if arrest rates for drug use mirrored rates of usage for each racial group, 570,000 whites would be busted annually, as opposed to the 325,000, at most, who actually were arrested in 2000: a difference of almost 250,000 people. That’s roughly a quarter- million white folks each 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 about 160,000 fewer blacks arrested each year for drugs, and 100,000 fewer Latinos. In other words, each year about a quarter-million fewer people of color would be arrested for drugs while a quarter-million more whites would be: a racial shift of a half-million faces altogether annually.

As for drug dealers, evidence from the Justice Department suggests that blacks are only sixteen percent of persons who sell drugs, while whites (including Hispanics) are eighty-two percent. 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.

Throughout the war on drugs then, it is no exaggeration to suggest that if one considers those not busted for possession or dealing, a few million white people have benefited 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 prison ID number. That’s millions of white people, every bit as guilty as those of color, but who by virtue of our freedom — a gift from a system that ignores our wrongdoing — have been able to make hundreds of millions of dollars in income, and accumulate wealth, property, and other advantages, relative to the million or so who are black and brown and have been unable to accumulate the same because they’ve been labeled drug felons. Indeed much of white America owes damn near everything we have to the existence of racism within the war on drugs. Without it, we’d be doing hard time.

So with 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.

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

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