A reader quotes me:
So one of the most powerful arguments for legalization of marijuana – that Prohibition grotesquely singles out African-Americans for criminal enforcement and spares whites – carries no more weight among African-Americans than it does among whites. Of those African-Americans who feel strongly about the subject, 40 percent oppose legalization and only 32 percent support it. Overall, there’s no statistically significant difference between whites and blacks on this. I’d be fascinated to hear from readers why they think this might be so. It seems on the surface that social conservatism is outweighing civil rights. But I’m genuinely baffled.
The answer to your question is that African-American marijuana users aren’t being arrested at higher levels. African-Americans in general are being arrested at higher level for everything then their white counterparts. The weed is just along for the ride. We understand this, so that argument doesn’t hold as much sway as it could.
That reader is echoed by another with a “perspective as a public defender”:
I think that people in the African American community see the different treatment of blacks and whites vis a vis marijuana enforcement as a symptom, and not a cause, of deep-seated racism in the criminal justice system.
That’s the kind of thing my confirmation biases can blind me to. Which is why I love my job. Another reader with expertise on the subject:
I co-founded the grassroots nonprofit now leading legalization in Rhode Island. You’ve addressed the most unasked question in the legalization debate, but it only demonstrates the complete tone deafness of white people like you who have their heart in the right place but don’t fully appreciate the wider racial dynamics of prohibition. As my colleagues said after observing the sea of white at a major drug policy reform conference: “If these guys are trying to save black people, why can’t they bring any of them to their conferences?” The partial answer is the indefatigable pride and resilience in communities of color we’ve worked with. I encourage you to approach an elderly, church-going woman of color who’s seen her neighborhood destroyed by drugs. Try shooting the shit about legalizing weed and see how far you get.
But the second answer reveals one of the paradoxes of legalization.
In this country, the archetypal divide for social change is between activists who feel an acute, moral zeal, and the rest of us whose allegiance lies with pragmatism and decide from the sidelines. But legalization completely inverts this rule: because there is such an enormous long-term price tag attached to reform, the open secret in legalization circles is that the types of activists it attracts tend to think of themselves as pragmatic, forward thinking businesspeople getting in on the ground floor of a major industry – not really as moral crusaders. Meanwhile, the moral case for marijuana comes less from its activists than observers and commentators, often in journalism, like you.
Thus your “bafflement,” like most sympathetic white people, is pretty common. The irony will be that that the people unharmed by prohibition were the only ones privileged enough to lobby against it. It raises the Faustian question: given the eventual multi-billion dollar windfall, how much lower would black support actually need to be before white invocation of their plight was exploitative? As has so often been the case in this country, the outcome of finally rectifying long overdo injustice will be black people moving out of prison, and white people (in this case, overwhelmingly men) moving out of their tax bracket. I guess that’s the price of change.
I will keep shouting this from the rooftops until somebody listens but “Black people are conservative!”. This applies not just to African-Americans but all of our diaspora. I’m Nigerian and we are some of the most homophobic, biblical literalist, anti-drug people on the planet.
As it relates to drugs and the Af-Am experience, one has to remember the deleterious affect that drugs had on the community (see the crack epidemic). Many older AA (over 55) would never fathom drug use since it’s a highway, in their minds, to brokenness, incarceration and a slew of other ills. Also, many older Black people see drugs as something white people do that’s been introduced to us to keep us down.
Most AA are live-and-let-live libertarian types on some matters, but by and large the older set really don’t get this new liberalism amongst the younger set. I’m sure if you tease out the younger AA cohort on the data you will see a fairly prominent divide. My Gen-X AA contemporaries fall into two camps weed legalization: “meh, not for me but let’s tax it” and “more fiya!”
For lower-income families, an addiction to drugs or alcohol, an illness, a pregnancy, etc. can have far more devastating effects than for wealthier people. So it would make sense if there was a stronger sense of social conservatism there. Leave aside that not going to jail is better for the families than going to jail. It might be a more general ethic of “don’t screw up, be safe, etc.” The consequences are more severe. If on the whole, the African-American population has more lower-income families, you might have a greater number of those who oppose.
(Photo: Matthew Staver for the Washington Post via Getty Images)