Imagine that it is 1900 in San Francisco. The police are arresting a whole lot of Chinese people for opium possession. So some sociologists decide to look into whether the arrest of the Chinese is a form of racism. They come back with a study that concludes that these arrests are not because of racism. It is just that the Chinese are far more likely to use opium. And San Francisco has a law against opium — the first drug law in the nation. Does that mean that the these are not racist arrests? Of course not! The opium law itself was a racist law, enacted specifically to target the Chinese who were the most hated minority group at that time.
This is, tellingly, the reason for pretty much all drug laws. They are always about elevating “our drugs” and suppressing “their drugs.” So the opium laws were about getting the “chinks.” The cocaine laws were about getting the “coloreds.” And cannabis laws were about getting the “spicks.” In fact, the word “marijuana” was coined specifically to associate the drug with Mexicans. And this is why I don’t use the word unless I am quoting someone. People are often confused as to why tobacco and alcohol are legal when other, far less dangerous drugs, are not. But such thinking just means that they still accept the establishment paradigm that claims that drugs are made illegal because they are dangerous. A drug’s danger has absolutely nothing to do with its legal status.
On Monday, Ezra Klein wrote a great article that touches on this, How Racial Discrimination in Law Enforcement Actually Works. It counters the argument that law enforcement isn’t really racist. The argument goes more or less like this: when you control for social factors, the police don’t actually pull over African Americans more than whites. But when one of those controls is the age and condition of the car and African Americans generally have older and poorer cars, that is systemic racism — the study is “controlling” for what it is supposedly looking for. There are various others, some of which are so obvious — like neighborhood — that you have to wonder about the neutrality of the researchers.
Klein noted that all of these controls ultimately make the opposite case that conservatives claim. For example, when controlling for everything imaginable, African Americans are still twice as likely as whites to be arrested on a drug charge. So even when you control for the fact that the police target the African American community far more than the white community, there is still a major racial bias. But conservatives argue that since the controls make the racial aspect of the effect smaller, there is nothing to see. I guess they assume that there are just other controls that we haven’t found. Here’s an idea: control for skin color!
I’ve never thought that police officers were any more racist than the society in general. But given that the society itself is highly racist, the policing will be too. What’s troubling is that we don’t accept this fact. Instead, we run around trying to prove that we are a colorblind society. And that is exhibit number one in our racism problem. I have a very low opinion of Alcoholics Anonymous, but they are right about one thing: you can’t deal with a problem if you won’t admit it. And America will not admit its racism problem.
Update (3 December 2014 1:27 pm)
Wow! I just watched last night’s The Daily Show and Larry Wilmore made the same comparison about racism as an addiction and admitting a problem.