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May 20, 2008





When I was a student during the “Reagan Revolution” I had a lot of arguments with conservative classmates about various issues.  One of the things that Reagan was well known for was telling stories about the fraudulent “welfare queen” who received multiple checks and drove a Cadillac.

Partly because of this oft-told tale many whites were under the misperception that there were more blacks than whites on welfare.  And that they were dishonestly receiving the payments at that.  This is still a commonly held belief even a generation later. 

However, it’s wrong.  It’s true that there is a disproportionately high percentage of blacks on public assistance in relation to their percentage of the overall population, but there are numerically more whites on welfare than blacks.

When talking about race and class in America misperceptions abound.  One area where this frequently occurs is when it comes to crime.  It is often assumed that African Americans are more prone to break the law than whites.  Conservative pundits and commentators like to point out that there are more blacks arrested and in jail for various crimes than whites.  These statistics are used to justify all sorts of heavy-handed police mistreatment of blacks such as drug courier profiling.

The problem is that the premise is false.  Throughout American history the children from poor families have been known to form gangs and engage in criminal activity.  It is no different for young blacks than say young Irish, Italian and Jewish gangs carving up territory among New York’s tenements.  In addition, the claim leaves out the likelihood that police improperly target black neighborhoods and even manufacture cases against innocent people (see my last post, “INJUSTICE”).

These factors and mistaken impressions are perhaps nowhere more prominently at play than in the area of drug use and enforcement.  A couple of weeks ago the AP ran a story about cocaine use in America (“Powdered Cocaine Not Just for White Yuppies Anymore,” 5/2/08).

The article attempted to make the assertion that powdered cocaine used to be a drug favored by affluent white people but that because the overwhelming number of arrests is now of minorities this image has significantly changed.  The problem is the reporter cites no other statistics or information to buttress her claims.

What about the cultural heritage of the use of the coca plant among some latinos?  What about the possibility that some of the hispanic men prosecuted for possession of cocaine are larger suppliers whose product will ultimately go to affluent suburbanites?  But, I have a problem with more than this shoddy reporting.  More importantly, this article completely discounts the fact that police are improperly probably only targeting hispanic and black men in their “war on drugs.”

Sometimes clichés are true.  Before the 1980’s cocaine was an expensive drug that few could afford.  But, a generation ago this scourge of the devil was already tempting a wider audience (see “Cocaine: Middle Class High,” Time magazine, 7/6/81).  The truth is that even in the depression-era song “Minnie the Moocher” cocaine was glorified; so it was always available for those who were looking for it.  It was never just a status symbol; but has always been a virulent and destructive killer.  It almost killed me.

The first time that I saw cocaine was among classmates in high school in super affluent Montgomery County, MD.  They didn’t share it.  Perhaps surprisingly, even though their parents had plenty of money, I saw my classmates steal, vandalize property, and drink and drug with reckless abandon.  I perceived no difference in the morality of my classmates when compared to my best friend at the time, who lived in the projects.  In fact, he was transforming and progressing thanks to a scholarship at a private school.  Anyway, in college and law school the decadence that I witnessed, and took part in, only increased.

So, it did not come as a shock when less than a week after I saw the powdered cocaine story came “Feds Penetrated Drug Culture Easily at San Diego State” (an AP story from 5/7/08).  It turns out that drug use and sales at this college were wide open, diverse, and over the top.  Since the arrests were mostly from white dominated fraternities I assume that most of the dozens of people arrested were white.  This comes as no surprise to anyone that has lived on a college campus.  What was different about this case is that the feds targeted these students.

As the story points out, usually there is a hands-off policy when it comes to campuses.  I imagine that like when I was a student, the campus ”5-O” was a joke.  In other words, parents (often wealthy) want their children to be able to get out of college with their “professional viability” intact.  There is normally no attempt made to arrest these students, nor is there a perceived societal interest in doing so.

Parents typically assume that their children are really good; they’re not like the people in the ghetto.  They only want to have a little fun or they got caught up with the wrong people.  That’s funny, these are usually the types of arguments that prosecutors, judges and juries reject when they are made by low income defendants.

So what was different about this case?  It could be that San Diego State was really far worse than other colleges.  I doubt it.  The difference was that there had been an overdose death at the school and the school’s administration felt that it was appropriate to respond by inviting law enforcement onto the campus.  That is, in this case.

But what about all of the rest of the cases?  Couldn’t it very well be that when you take into account white drug use that’s hidden behind the walls of suburban houses that drug addiction is about the same everywhere?  This is generally what the National Survey on Drug Use & Health always finds.  There are slight differences in drugs of choice but overall use of teenage mind-altering substances is about the same.  As they get older, more whites switch to alcohol.

Why do the whites get a pass on drug use?  Why are minority offenders picked on?

Why is there this misperception?


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