Racist Laws and the “Colorblind” Society

Opium SmokersImagine 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “Racist Laws and the “Colorblind” Society

  1. You are correct in saying that cops reflect the community they serve. I can attest to that here in my little southern city. Recent riots about police shootings of unarmed black kids similar to Ferguson caused city leaders to reevaluate police training and attitudes toward the black community. In a very short period of time, the thin blue line stopped murdering black kids and the black community’s attitude toward the cops changed. Major crimes are way down and cops shootings are non-existent due mainly to the pressure applied by all racial and ethnic groups within the city on the police. The Ferguson police could use some of this attitude adjustment, but it will happen only if the community forces it to.

    • That’s good to hear. But I don’t think the problem is policing as such. We have a racist society and the police simply reflect that. But it is certainly true that society could be a whole lot better even while remaining just as racist.

  2. It’s pretty obvious that the initial motivation for most of these drug laws was racist. However, that was a long time ago, and I think ‘defenders’ of drug laws no longer use racially-oriented arguments. They use other arguments, stupid and offensive in different ways.

    The majority of those arguments give the opposite conclusion than that intended. They imply that legality, not illegality, is socially desirable. This is, of course, even before you bring in the fact that the idea of modern society, upheld by conservative and liberal discourse alike, is that persons should be free individuals who can make their own choices in life, good and bad. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people actually meant it!

    • Just because the racism has been so worked into the fabric of society that it isn’t explicit, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. What’s more, crack cocaine isn’t that old. The national freak-out about the epidemic and the mythical “crack babies” was just an expression of racial anxiety. Regardless, you really need to reflect on why it is that moderate drinking is acceptable. Also: why is cigarette smoking considered a nasty habit but not an indication of moral failure. This was how, by the way, opium use was considered a century and a half ago.

      I highly recommend reading Th Metzger’s The Birth of Heroin: and the Demonization of the Dope Fiend I wish I could get the whole nation to read it, because it better deconstructs our drug mythologies than any other book. (And I’ve read pretty much every other book!)

    • No! Over the years, I have come to believe that commas are great. I know the moderns really didn’t like them. But clarity is what matters and your use of them made your writing very clear. I really don’t use enough commas. I’m still partially poisoned by Virginia Woolf. Comma on!

      • Commas might make writing clear, or they might be a signal that more sentences should be used or that the writing would be clearer if organized in a different way.

        Obviously, there was racism in the crack panic. But it’s not clear to me that for most people, racism generally is the reason for supporting drug laws. You have racists with the rational view (legalization) and with the irrational (not-legalization). And you have racially very progressive people who support (wrongly of course!) drug laws.

        To me of course, drug legalization is just as obvious as egalitarianism and racial equality. Required by any minimally rational viewpoint, in my opinion. But not shared by lots of people who I otherwise largely agree with. In summary, racists and non-racists alike are stupid about drugs.

        • It is very true that people often try to finesse multiple ideas into a single sentence. But even then, it is better if they provide adequate punctuation!

          I think maybe I’m not being clear. What I’m talking about is how drugs are primarily cultural signifiers. It doesn’t mean that an individual who is against a particular drug does it for personally racist reasons. But it does mean that he does it for culturally racist reasons.

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