Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Can the Drug War ever die while racism lives?

We talk about it. We think about it. We invite speakers to motivate us about it. The efforts the drug policy reform movement has made to be inclusive of people of color have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. For years the elephant in the room has been the truth that-- as Erik so eloquently put it--"justice dictates that we should be linking our arms with those who bear the brunt of Drug War brutality."

I know I've spent countless hours fighting frustrations with the obstacles that can never seem to be defined or overcome. It's hard to have hope when we each battle with this in our local efforts and have to combat the racist thoughts that all white drug policy reformers have probably held at some point: Why don't those who are most victimized by the Drug War want to be just like us?

Each of us only has the potential for so much influence, but it's critical that we use it for active anti-racism. This means stepping outside and looking at ourselves as individuals- who we are and where we came from. We live in a country founded on white supremacy, and we carry this legacy whether we acknowledge it or not. We've been born into social structures created by our founding fathers to keep blacks and whites divided so that the elite few could hold on to their power. We're socialized to keep silent about race so that we don't disrupt the system. And like it or not, we're socialized to think white people make better decisions.

At the "Anti-Racist Organizing" workshop in Long Beach, each of us had to come up with at least one reform organization run by people of color. How many can you name?

White folks can't own the table we're trying to bring people to. We need to come to terms with the white privilege we bring to this movement. Do we see ourselves as we really are, or do we just think of ourselves as the movement? Who's movement is it?

I know we all fantasize about the day that every single person affected by the Drug War stands up to fight it. We celebrate small successes, but to bring this thing down to its knees, we need the masses.

This Drug War was born from racism, so how can our solution not include ending it? Let's go about this differently. Start with yourself.


Micah Daigle said...


I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that the drug policy reform movement must work to open our "umbrella" to those most affected by the Drug War. In response to your question "Can the Drug War ever die while racism lives?": I think that the two are a symbiotic relationship... one does not directly stem from the other, but both are symboitic symptoms of the larger human diseases of selfishness, hate, cynicism and egotism. We need to work to defeat both, but we can only do so if we - as you suggest - start locally (especially with our own biases).

However, on the topic of "opening our umbrella", I'd like to stress that we should never force people under it. The simple fact is that those primarily affected by this war (minorities) are those primarily stigmatized by this war as well. Society looks at blacks and hispanics as drug-users and drug-dealers, so it is easy to understand why so few of them would be bold enough to devote their lives to advocating the legalization of drugs!

An analogy may help to illuminate what I'm saying: The majority of those working in Africa to fight the aids epidemic are likely not Africans themselves. This is not because self-righteous Americans and Europeans feel that they are *smarter* than Africans, but it is because they recognize they were born with the privilege of health and opportunity, and have decided to give back to those not born with the same privilege.

Similarly, I don't think it is necessary to insist that the ratio of our movement's color reflect the ratio of those affected by the War on Drugs. We should welcome any and all people to the movement, and as long as we are sincere in this attempt, then we should not kick ourselves for being "too white".

And from what I've seen, I think we (the "movement", in general) has done an excellent job at keeping our doors open to all. Truly, we should stay cognizant of this effort - and thank you Jenny for raising the issue - but we should not be *too* hard on ourselves. We are beautiful. :-)

Jonthon said...

Active-anti-racism...it has a nice ring to it.

As a student at a University boasting an 8% minority student population, I have witnessed a number of protests in just the past two years. Looking back, I now realize I should have asked to join them.

I think part of the problem we will always face when attempting to bring people to the table is that, unfortunately, those most affected are affected by so much more. Whether it is to get enough tutoring to pass classes, or to work enough hours to put food on the table, those worst-hit are likely fighting their own wars. To ask them to join us, in this light, seems selfish.

I guess what I'm urging is that we rethink what needs to be done to grow the drug law reform movement: Maybe instead of encouraging them to come under our umbrella, we should get more involved in their causes when we see opportunities to do so. Those at the bottom of the social ladder (us and them included) would be wise to consider our involvements as simply battles, in a larger war against aristocracy.

Next time we see a chance to step out from under our umbrella, we should. In the long run, this is probably the most personal and effective way to build OUR movement - where "our" is defined on that much grander scale.

Great piece, Jenny.

Joe Bartlett said...

As one of the few non-Whites at the conference, I can honestly say that, from my perspective, the drug policy reform movement *is* too White. The fact is, we do need more Blacks to step forward in the movement, and the reason is simple: credibility.

When we here in Columbia, Missouri were collecting signatures to get our marijuana initiatives on the ballot for the Nov. '04 election, one question (or, more precisely, one accusation) was directed at us time and time again by those who opposed us. That is, we don't really care about medical marijuana patients; rather, we're simply a bunch of selfish college students who want to get high, and we're willing to use medical marijuana patients to get our foot in the door.

Fortunately for us, those accusations were easy to dispel. How so? Simple. Actual medical marijuana patients played a tremendous role in our public campaign efforts. Now, as our movement continues to try to make progress, we have to do the same with the other communities that we are working to assist. Until the organizations in our movement work to include those we're trying to help, we'll continue to be susceptible to the same suspicions and accusations: that we're just a bunch of selfish college students who want to get high.

All of us here at the DGD know that this accusation is baseless. The issue of whether or not any of us, in the privacy of our own homes, enjoys using illegal substances aside, I know that nobody in our movement is simply using Blacks or Latinos or cancer patients to serve their own selfish ends. But, until our movement is truly inclusive, it will be hard for us to shake those accusations.

It certainly won't be easy but, then again, no work that's worth doing ever is.

Kris said...

"Start with yourself."

Sound advice. Then one should move on to the staff roster and board of directors list of one's organization. And don't stop with race. Take a look at class as well, ethnicity, educational backround. Does an individual need a BA/BS to qualify to staff a drug policy reform nonprofit? A high school diploma? If we want to talk about inclusion, let's get inclusive.

Back to the specific subject of race, keep in mind that racism is not only the cause of the war on drugs, but the result, as well. Racist notions- in all directions– are perpetuated and deepened by the spectacle of drug-related debauch and abandon in the media, and fermented and potentiated in every prison in the nation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The answer to the question in your title, IMO, is "Yes." The drug war can end before racism does.

Racism existed long before the drug war, and reforms can occur in spite of it, or even in reaction to it. Most of today's illicit drugs were legal during slavery, for example, and I'll guarantee there's still plenty of racism in Denver and Colombia, MO. In Texas, several new, important laws were passed after the Tulia debacle, showing negative reactions to racism can actually spur reforms.

Moreover, some people you might consider to be part of the "social structures" that "keep blacks and whites divided so that the elite few could hold on to their power" strongly oppose the drug war -- especially federal involvement which is seen on the right as a state's rights violation. The Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union come to mind as right wing groups that have opposed federal funding for the drug war on state's rights grounds (also the same reason Rehnquist sided with Raich).

While politically more comfortable, isn't it tactically unwise to leave such support on the table? Should we tell LEAP, "I'm sorry, the laws you police officers are enforcing result in racial profiling and disproportionate incarceration of minorities, so we don't want your support"? Is the drug policy reform movement stronger if it remains a subset of the progressive movement, or if it learns to cross party and ideological barriers to pick up support from across the political spectrum?

Racism certainly has informed our drug laws and day-to-day drug enforcement from the beginning, but it is a deeper, even more profound tragedy. IMO, it's a big strategic error for drug policy reformers to think we simply CAN'T change the drug laws before resolving our nation's gravest national shame. I fear then we'll never get there.

Great post and dialogue -- loving the new blog so far. Best,

Jenny Loeb said...

The question posed in the title of my post was meant to explore whether the Drug War can ever end completely in the presence of racism, not whether we can effect changes in the law. We can, and we have. But looking at one of the larger functions of the WOD, enslaving and disenfranchising a large population of nonwhite and poor Americans, we have to wonder if it will ever end within the current system. This understanding is something that many of us take for granted, but is simply not grasped by most people, in my opinion.

Therefore I would never suggest we discriminate against people who are "part of the social structures" that perpetuate racism- we all are to some extent, which was the main point of my post.

I also do not think that identifying racism's role in the WOD and the journey to its demise is a progressive issue any more than conservative. If exposing these truths offends someone who would otherwise by an ally, then I suppose one would have to decide whether to ignore them for the purpose of gaining their support, which I am not entirely opposed to. There are lots of prejudiced people who oppose the WOD, and I don't think they should be discriminated against in our movement either. I think most of us agree that our movement is stronger because it crosses political and ideological barriers. Like the realization and inclusion of racism's role, this is a critical win for us in this war.

(I am thankful!) for the thought-provoking comments!

Joe Bartlett said...


I thought you were asking a few different questions in your original post, so I'll take a stab at answering them individually:

1. Can we end the drug war without ending racism? Sure we can. Racism is never going to go away, but the Drug War can. The rise of the WOD in its current form coincided with the end of the so-called Jim Crow laws. Before that, there were Black codes, poll taxes and "literacy" tests to keep Blacks from voting and, of course, slavery. In time, each of those forms of institutionalized racism fell, only to see a new form take its place. When the WOD ends (and I do believe that it will end one day), it will be no different: those concerned with protecting their power will concoct something new to take its place.

Raising public awareness of the racist roots of the WOD will be a key part of our success in ending it. And we can (and must) take steps to eradicate racism wherever we see it, which brings me to the next part of my response:

2. Can we end the WOD without becoming an inclusive movement? I've already commented a bit about this in my previous post in this thread, and I'll stand by what I said there. We won't succeed unless more Blacks are brought into our movement. As few Blacks as there were at the DPA convention, there were a lot more of us there than there were at the NORML convention earlier in the year.

So, we're making progress. It was a delight for me to be able to meet and talk with other Blacks in the drug policy reform movement while I was out in Long Beach. Being the only minority in my own SSDP chapter (as Jonathon already alluded, it's embarrassing how non-diverse the campus of the University of Missouri is), it was a welcome change of pace to be able to talk drug war politics with other Blacks who are involved in the movement.

So, no, we won't win as long as our movement remains overwhelmingly White. But the good news is, that's changing. It may be changing slowly, and it may have been far too long in coming, but it is starting to change, and all of us--Blacks and Whites--are better off for it.