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Hey Dude, Where’s My Privilege? Race and Lawbreaking in Black and White


Envision the following, if you can.

Imagine that a group of black youth were to descend upon a college town, take to an open field and proceed to smoke pot–lots of it–just as they had announced they would, at the very time they had promised to be there. Thousands of them, lighting up, virtually daring police to enforce the law and arrest them.

Now, in such a scenario as this, how long do you think it would take for the cops to call their bluff?

If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to the so-called war on drugs, you’ll almost instinctively know the answer. It is people of color who have always borne the brunt of drug crackdowns, even though whites use drugs at rates that are equal to or higher than the rates for the black and brown. So, for instance, although whites comprise more than 70 percent of all drug users (slightly higher than our share of the population), and blacks and Latinos combined make up about 25 percent of users (less than their combined share of the population), it is the latter two groups whose members comprise about 9 in 10 persons incarcerated for a possession offense in the U.S. No, black and brown youth couldn’t get away with mass lawbreaking of this type for very long.

But when a bunch of white stoners announce their plans for a big pot-fest, known alternately (depending on which of several such events we’re talking about) as 420 Smoke-Out, or the 420 Festival (the 420 being a not-so-secret code for cannabis consumption), and then proceed to break the laws against such an event just as promised, nothing happens. No arrests, no citations, no wading into the crowd by overzealous cops intent on bashing the heads of the hooligans arrayed before them. Of course not.

Just like there is very little in the way of law enforcement response when white college students riot on their campuses, as they have done over 150 times in the past fifteen years, and never over important political matters of social injustice, or war, but rather, because of the outcomes of sporting events or crackdowns on underage drinking. White folks, you see, get pissed when you interrupt our right to party.

And so in Boulder, Colorado and Santa Cruz, California just a few weeks ago (on April 20th, 4/20 get it? No irony here, just maddeningly predictable pothead behavior), thousands of people–statistically speaking, nearly all of them white, and with virtually no black folks, other than perhaps an occasional Bob Marley pic on a t-shirt–showed up to spark up: part of an annual pot pilgrimage that has been going on for several years now, always with the same, unarrested result.

Now don’t misunderstand, I’ve indulged my fair share of weed, and I’m not one to advocate the criminalization of such activity, as I think it both a waste of justice system resources and overly punitive. Yet none of that is the point. The point is this: people of color simply could not get away with such a flagrant disrespect for the law, no matter how stupid that law may be. But white hacky-sack kickin’ hippies who continue to believe–against all evidence to the contrary–that patchouli can actually cover up body odor? Well, they can get away with damned near anything.

Oh sure, to read the headline in the student paper at UC Santa Cruz, you might think there had been some jackbooted overreaction by the cops to such behavior. After all, "UCSC Cracks Down on 4/20 Festival," makes it seem as though perhaps the administration had decided to actually arrest people, or even suspend or expel them for engaging in blatantly illegal behavior. But no. Upon reading the article one learns that by "cracking down" the author meant that the campus would erect barricades, enforce parking rules, limit use of school shuttles and ban students from having friends crash at their dorms overnight. Damn pigs, what a police state! Apparently the folks at Santa Cruz haven’t gotten the memo on how to deal with scofflaws such as these. To wit, the reaction by Colorado-Boulder officials who sprayed them down with water from a sprinkler system a few years back. Although some among the assembled may have experienced the dousing as oppressive–after all, it might almost constitute a bath if one were to get wet enough–for most, the occasion was likely viewed as a welcome respite from an otherwise hot day.

Though I tend to agree with those who claim pot has very little negative health effect upon its users, it does appear to have rather serious consequences for cognitive function, which would normally be, ya know, a problem at a college. Indeed, at the big Boulder smoke-out in 2008, white users demonstrated a drug-induced vapidity that would be viewed as culturally pathological were it exhibited by students of color. So, for instance, despite CU Boulder being a highly selective university, they managed to admit the likes of Emily Benson, who told a reporter she actually came to the school "for the weed atmosphere," and to be part of the pot legalization movement. Not for an education, mind you, but to get high. And for this, she took a spot that could have been given to a hard-working black or brown kid instead, or a working class white kid for that matter with more serious daily concerns than the munchies. Call it, stoner affirmative action: a form of preferential treatment extended to many of the whites at Boulder apparently, including one young woman who expressed her disappointment upon learning that the cookies and muffins being handed out by one of her classmates at the 4/20 fest weren’t "magical," as in, filled with even more of the drugs she had already ingested. Bummer: now she’ll have to make do with that one blunt and some Adderall. How will she survive such an indignity as this?

Meanwhile, as the aforementioned Ms. Benson (from the Kansas City area, and whose parents must be so proud of her) indulges her habit, and as thousands of her white classmates do too–many of them styling each other’s hair in dreadlocks, because nothing goes better with white privilege than cultural appropriation–it is students of color who continue to be told they are the unqualified ones, that they are the ones who are unjustly taking up space at elite schools, that their acceptance into such places is "lowering standards" and cheapening the value of a college degree.

The irony of it all couldn’t be more perfect: a bunch of white college students clamoring for the legalization of pot, not realizing that for them it already is, in effect, legal. If they really wanted to see the laws change, they would be out demanding an end to the racist and classist war on drugs. They would be engaged in advocacy, not bong hits, the latter of which make the former exceedingly difficult. In fact, the only way the nation’s drug laws are likely to change–for everyone–would be if the jails and prisons came to be flooded with bodies that looked a lot like the ones in the meadow at UC Santa Cruz and on the quad at CU Boulder. Only if whites start getting locked up will sufficient pressure be brought to bear to liberalize drug laws. As long as the ones being locked up are black and brown, the very same whites whose kids are blazing up (with taxpayer support, via student loans no less), will say nothing. Perhaps if their little bundles of THC started getting sent to the joint (as in, the penitentiary, not the other kind), things would change. But don’t expect any of the weed warriors at the 420 events to volunteer for that kind of thing. Their commitment isn’t to social change, after all. It’s to getting high, to self-indulgence, to their own narcissism.

This is perhaps the most blatant example of white privilege imaginable: the ability to do what you want, when you want, without fear of consequence, and then to have that behavior deemed largely harmless, even when, for others, it would be viewed as dysfunctional, destructive, and evidence of a profound cultural flaw.

Well it’s time to flip the script on all that; time to note that it isn’t the culture of black and brown youth, or working class youth (of whatever color), that needs changing. They aren’t the problem. They aren’t the ones with inverted value systems. They aren’t the ones whose presence on campus is the problem. It’s some among the ones with money and insufficient melanin who are the problem. And it’s time we treated them like one, especially when, by their behavior, they literally beg us to do so.

Tim Wise  is author of several books; the most recent of which is Between Barack and a Hard Place, Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com

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