Society and Culture
A Refreshing Perspective
The law often does not have the same consequences for all people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a given law is racist. Or even that a given officer tasked with enforcing the law is a racist individual. What it does mean is that though justice is supposed to be blind, the fallible human beings whose duty it is to carry out the law are not. This is never more true than when it comes to arrests for marijuana. This topic has been in the news recently in the wake of Colorado making marijuana consumption legal.
What I am here to talk about is the cold, hard truth about the state of marijuana use — and more importantly, arrests — in the rest of the nation where recreational marijuana use is still forbidden. Particularly what I’d like to comment on is the raw, and honestly quite refreshing take MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes had on the subject in response to a column recently written by David Brooks. I’ll let Chris do the talking and then see you after the jump.
Mr. Hayes’ anecdotal account of his run-in at the Republican National Convention where he accidentally brought in marijuana is but a poignant example of the disparity between what the law says, and how the law is enforced. All too often, however, the fact is either swept under the rug by someone hypothesizing that it can’t be that simple, or that people of color use marijuana in different ways, or are more inclined to be attempting to sell the substance rather than consume it, which is often the difference between a misdemeanor or a felony charge. Still others refuse to admit there is a difference in enforcement at all.
This last group of blissfully ignorant individuals is simply ignoring the truth. Despite comparable rates of marijuana consumption, Blacks in particular, not “minorities” in a vague sense, but African Americans are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession. You can try to peer behind this fact all you want. You can speculate about how and where Blacks versus Whites consume the substance. Obviously consumption in a car or other places outside the home increase the chance of detection. But the fact remains, and was made remarkably clear by Chris Hayes, that if by mere accident of birth you don’t look the part of a criminal, you are often not even treated like one, despite actually haven broken the law as written.
Therein lies the rub for Blacks across the country. They engage in precisely the same behavior, and yet are punished more for it. That certainly has to weigh heavily on the spirit of anyone who believes in the equal protection of the laws.
I don’t want to hide the ball here. This post is about privilege. Plain and simple. At its heart, the privilege I am talking about is the freedom of action that some in this nation have that others can only dream about. In the case of Chris Hayes, it was the freedom to plainly break the law in a highly securitized environment like a national political convention, and not only not be arrested, but be handed back the illegal substance and told to go on his merry way. Now that’s privilege you can’t buy.
Unfortunately, it is the privilege itself that often inhibits those who have it from recognizing it. It’s the privilege that allowed David Brooks to wax nostalgically about he and his friends’ recreational marijuana usage as teens. Almost as if there were no real consequences. Well, there were no consequences . . . for them. When you are raised in an environment where, for whatever reason, no one you know has ever been arrested for smoking marijuana, you are bound to wonder about those who you see in the media who do. You are bound to see them as different from you because they are under peril of different consequence. They very nearly live in a different world where arrests for possession are common. And even if these arrests don’t lead to incarceration, the arrests do lead to the collateral consequences of having a criminal record in modern society and all the repercussions in an educational, social, or employment context.
I only wish more of the privileged were frank about just how easy they have it. But I can’t blame them, I guess [this is a figure of speech, I actually find it quite easy to blame them]. They know not what they know not. We are often all victims of our perspectives. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all took the time to be as brutally honest with ourselves and others about the benefits that our traits or social class, whatever those may be, bestow upon us. Could we all be as honest as Chris Hayes about the “but fors” in life? But for my parents knowing a lawyer, I would have gone to jail that time. But for my gender, I likely would have gotten that ticket. But for my skin color, I’d be another nameless face caught in the criminal justice system.
Our “but fors” are our privilege made real and manifested in benefits that we often cannot or will not see. We all have them. But let’s be honest, there are some whose privilege goes miles further than others.
Dominic Jones (@DomPerinyon) is originally from Atlantic City, NJ. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. followed by law school at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC. In his spare time he enjoys art, photography, and documentary films.
Featured image courtesy of [Dank Depot via Flickr]