Higher Ground: Checking Your White Privilege

Drug laws don’t affect everyone equally.

It’s good to be white.

For example, as a white guy, I’m statistically more likely to be selling drugs than an African-American man. (I’ve always been too scared of going to jail to actually sell pot, but I’m using this to make my point.) If I were black, however, it would be three times more likely that I’d be arrested for dealing. It gets even better for whitey. Though five times as many of us use drugs, African-Americans are sent to prison 10 times as often for the same crimes. And once ya get to jail? On average, African-Americans serve as much time in prisons for drug offenses (58 months) as white folks do for violent ones (62 months).

While we may have legalized weed out West, these stats—and the ongoing federal War on Drugs—feed into a vicious loop that gives officers the pretense of probable cause to search, detain, and arrest African-Americans in droves. It is a short line from our national drug policy to police abuses. And by now we’ve all seen the dozens of cell-phone videos illustrating exactly how this often turns out for (eventually deceased) black men and women—who are after all under the law innocent until proven guilty.

While it might be good to be white, it doesn’t exactly feel good; seems like we should be further down the line on the apparently not-so-self-evident “All Men Are Created Equal” thing. Recently I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of young African-American men in Baltimore and Atlanta and Ferguson. Can I relate? At what point have I been targeted or profiled or discriminated against?

I’m Jewish. Does that count? Over the years I’ve heard offensive stereotypes and jokes. (“Jew ‘em down” is my least favorite.) But while that’s painful, it’s simply not the same. I have no fear of being pulled over for the way I look; I don’t worry that some armed jackass playing Neighborhood Watchman will follow me for no other reason than the color of my skin. I have no problem getting my foot in the door in business meetings, obtaining loans, or hailing cabs in any city in the world. And because I don’t have those life concerns, I may not actually “get it.”

My upbringing didn’t help either. I grew up on Mercer Island, where we called the only black kid in our entire elementary school “Chocolate.” (I apologize, Hayden.) Eventually basketball icon Bill Russell and his family moved to the island, and our black population tripled. Without people of color to relate to, there was very little chance in my youth to experience diversity, much less economic or cultural differences or division.

It took a steady diet of Toni Morrison, classes at Berkeley, and the recent slew of well-documented abuses to understand that the color of a person’s skin can clearly change their circumstances. I’m now fully aware that blacks are more likely to be pulled over by police, stopped as pedestrians (and frisked), and “randomly” searched at airports. The national unemployment rate for African-Americans is double that of whites. Black kids, according to the Department of Education, are more likely to be punished in schools, as well as get rookie teachers, which—go figure—affects their drop-out and graduation rates. But far more problematic than these are the institutional barriers that still exist.

In Missouri, the Justice Department’s own report following the shooting of Michael Brown found that “nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law-enforcement system” negatively affected and severely impacted African-Americans.

Nationwide, while blacks are only about 13 percent of the population, they make up 37 percent of drug-related arrests and almost half of the prison population (one million of the 2.2 million incarcerated individuals). Overall, they’re incarcerated at six times the rate of whites.

The ongoing police brutality against unarmed black men, women, and children has clearly triggered the anger that accompanies such injustice, resulting in ongoing protests and riots throughout the country. There’s a point at which truly marginalized groups get backed into such a corner that an equally valid option to putting up with the jerry-rigged system is raising hell and overturning the apple cart. Intellectually, I get it; I’ve reached a boiling point over slow-moving traffic and lousy bar service. But I also understand that, for true change to occur, those in power must somehow seek to share that power.

How to do we make a seismic shift happen without all hell breaking loose? I don’t know. I’m in over my head. But here’s a start: I’d like my tax dollars to be directed to communities that have been decimated by mass unemployment and social neglect. And I’d like the government to explore new efforts and ideas to aid the poor and the vulnerable—many of which may fail. And that’s OK. As a white person, I can relate to plenty of social experiments that have been colossal flops: Apple’s Newton, for example, and Microsoft’s Zune. Enron and MCI. Jazzercize. The Delorean. Solyndra. MySpace. And the War on Drugs.

Priorities must change. And any argument about government getting out of the way is yet another attempt to keep the status quo—and racism—alive and well. Indifference or passive support of the current dynamic is unacceptable. If you need a more self-centered reason to change the system than the common good, consider this: We’ll be the minority soon enough.

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