In all my years writing articles, I never get as strong a reaction from readers as when writing about race in the drug war. After publishing an article on race, my inbox clogs with strongly worded emails from readers whose reactions range from euphoric to aghast. No other topic earns as many “unsubscribe” clicks from the NCHRC group email list. What is it about the racial element to the drug war that makes some people so angry?
In exploring this topic, I thought I’d share a little about my own upbringing and journey toward my current beliefs about racial justice. There was once a time when I too might have been angered by any article with the words “white privilege” in the title.
I was raised by a loving family in a white middle-class home. We didn’t talk much about racial issues, but I never heard my parents utter an unkind word about any person of another race or class. I was taught to treat everyone with respect and kindness. We traveled a lot and I was encouraged to value other cultures, religions and ways of life.
But there was one subtle lesson I picked up about race. I remember my mother looking at cereal boxes that displayed smiling children of different races and saying with a slight frown, “that’s so politically correct” or “PC” for short. I remember watching a movie with my family in the 1990s and hearing my parents mutter something about political correctness when they saw Morgan Freeman, a black man, as the film’s president. I remember bringing home my high school history textbook and seeing my mother tense upon flipping to the very end of each chapter, where there was a small, separate section on black history and women’s history. “So PC,” she sighed.
Interestingly, at the time it never occurred to me that my parents’ irritation with political correctness had anything to do with race. The enemy was not people of other races, but politicians forcing political correctness down our throats. The problem was the people obsessed with identity politics, their insistence on splintering us into fragments instead of emphasizing and embracing our commonality. It was better, my parents and I believed, to simply judge all people on merit, regardless of their inclusion in a particular minority group.
I thought I viewed the world through a colorblind lens until college, when during a heated conversation, someone pointed out to me: If you’re colorblind, how can you see political correctness everywhere? This question threw me off. It was true. I certainly saw color wherever political correctness was concerned. For a long time, I had considered political correctness a societal cancer, but I had never truly pondered what about it was so wrong. What annoyed me about seeing children of different races on cereal boxes? Why point out one movie with a black president instead of noticing that every other movie showed a white president? What does the fact that women’s history and black history were relegated to the last couple paragraphs in a long chapter say about what society thinks of their contribution to history? Why did the words “white privilege” irk me so, when in my heart I knew that my skin color afforded me many advantages?
After much thought, I decided that there were several things that bothered me about political correctness. First, it was the feeling that I was being attacked or criticized for something I couldn’t control, such as my skin color. Second, politically correct policies such as forced inclusiveness, diversity quotes, etc, seemed more complex and unrealistic than simply judging everyone on merit. I kept hearing my mother’s voice in the back of my head – What’s next? Quotas for electing short politicians? Affirmative action for unattractive people? Third, it seemed to splinter us into fragmented identities, even force people into boxes, without taking into account that most people occupy multiple boxes.
But as annoyed as I was at all things politically correct, I was also aware of the irony of a white person complaining about how non-white people are portrayed in history and the media. At some point I realized that if I wanted a better perspective on racial issues, I should seek advice from people of color. Over the ensuing years, I asked many people many questions about race and privilege. The most important thing they taught me was to be aware, to open my eyes to the subtle ways in which people of color are treated differently and valued differently than white people. For example, as a lobbyist, I’ve met with legislators who initially acted gruff and dismissive of drug users as “criminals” and “thugs.” During our next meeting, I would bring along a mother who had lost a white, middle class, student-athlete to drug overdose. As she told her story, I have watched sympathy slowly dawn on the hardened face of the legislator until suddenly he was promising to do everything he could to help because “drugs aren’t just a problem on the east side of the tracks.” This transformation, which I have seen over and over again, is both exciting and horrifying to watch. There is no doubt in my mind that I had I brought a poor or black person to testify, the outcome of the meeting would have been different.
I’m still bothered by political correctness when I see a person’s entire career destroyed over one misplaced remark. But I’ve started to think differently about a few things that used to irritate me. First, I realize now that talking about “white privilege” isn’t the same as saying that all white people have it easy or blaming someone for being born with white skin. It’s about trying to make people aware that having lighter skin can open up more opportunities for work, housing, or getting the benefit of the doubt – just like having more money does. Second, although it is true that policies that acknowledge race might seem to splinter people into fragmented identities, I believe that “just treat everyone the same” can be code for “keep things as they are.” It allows us to avoid the topic of race, which is tempting, since people of all political persuasions are terrible about talking about race. We all seem to have forgotten how to listen.
It’s not always easy to talk about sensitive issues, and some conversations turn into arguments, which can make things worse. But in general, I think most people would agree that it is good to acknowledge problems in order to discuss solutions, rather than to pretend they don’t exist. This is why I write about race in the drug war. Nowhere have I seen more devastating effects of disparate treatment than within drug policy and the criminal justice system. The numbers alone on how people of all races use drugs at similar rates but are incarcerated at wildly different rates are staggering. The War on Drugs is absolutely a race issue. It is also a class issue. I just think of the slow dawn of sympathy over the legislators’ faces when they see an affluent, white mother and I know that it’s real.
I’m not surprised when articles on race in the drug war cause some anger, though I still grapple with how to deal with these reactions. Writing about race may alienate some people, but I hope that others will find it within themselves to ask questions and seek answers about how deeply racial tensions in this country affect drug policy, the criminal justice system, and countless other systems and institutions. I think most of us want the same thing – fair treatment for all people – but we differ on whether that end is best served by emphasizing race more or less. I used to think that less was better, but now I believe that less was only better for me, as a white person, because it allowed me to live within the comfort and familiarity of my own experience, largely oblivious to what was happening around me. I still struggle to stay aware and it is still hard for me to have conversations about race because I can’t explain in one article or one conversation the many ways in which my previous views were challenged over the years. I often feel frustrated that some people just don’t see. But to that end, I will continue to write about race in the drug war even at the risk of upsetting some people. Change doesn’t happen unless we push boundaries beyond what is comfortable.