My emotions work more like a slow boil than an explosion. In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, my analysis of racism on Monday was my honest, if somewhat dispassionate, opinion of where we are as a country, and it helped me piece together some of my thoughts. I stand by it, even as I have several detractors. With that out of the way, though, now I’m mad.
George Zimmerman stalked and killed Trayvon Martin for carrying a bag of Skittles. He picked up on a variety of identifiers and thought, “This kid might have drugs!”
So. Damn. What.
What if they were drugs? Would that have been worth apprehending the kid, much less shooting him? Would the world have ended if he had taken a hit of weed, or even — gasp — sold it to someone else?
I don’t own a cable subscription, and most of my reading comes from sources other than major news syndicates, so I could be missing something here, but the drug issue seems almost entirely overlooked amid sensationalism about how stupid the jurors are, what it means to stand your ground, and the specifics of a horribly injust but far-from-newsworthy trial — can anyone say “exploiting tragedy for ratings?” The band Tool already indicted us back in 2006 with their song “Vicarious,” which might well serve as the theme song for this and every trial that makes the rounds in the news media (“Vicariously I/ Live while the whole world dies/ Much better you than I”).
If the media had tried to see what was really going on here rather than make a cash grab at the expense of someone’s life, we would have seen this issue come up already. Yet, a Google search for “trayvon martin war on drugs” yielded a dearth of articles from respectable websites suggesting any sort of connection between the two. The best I found is here, with a grand total of six comments. Are we really so blind? It’s quite obvious that the war on drugs has crippled poor communities, and our fear of drug culture undergirds pretty much every conceivable way I can think of to profile a black man or even a lower-class white man.
Here’s the thing: drug culture presents real problems, like increased crime, cyclical poverty, and low high school graduation rates. But, as a strong proponent of postmodern virtue theory, I believe virtue stems from the community, and when you tear apart a community by throwing their loved ones in jail (or shooting them in this case) because you suspect they have a drug that isn’t alcohol or caffeine — having a recreational drug is an upstanding white man’s privilege, you know — you destroy any hope of virtue. There is nothing to strive for except survival from day to day. There is no goal, no discernable telos as we virtue theorists like to say. Virtue in a society fighting to survive in spite of the authorities is this: stay low, avoid the cops, do what you must to eat, find money however it comes.
Historically, the pieces fit together like a fish hook into the open eye of the black community. What we traditionally know as racism — Jim Crow laws, segregated public spaces, open insults to a person simply based on race — has, I continue to argue, dropped to about as low a level as it will ever get. Optimistic though I would like to be, I see no more possible major cultural shifts on the near horizon that will end direct, “first-order” racism as I called it on Monday (I would love for someone to correct me on this, though). However, both institutionalized and unspoken first-order racism sufficiently damaged minority groups so as to force many of them into poverty, and that didn’t magically lift with MLK.
My understanding of what transpired over the course of the 20th century with regard to race and drug prohibition is as such: Jim Crow laws and overt racism forced minorities, particularly blacks, into poverty. Racist vice lords/mafia bosses targeted black communities, capitalizing on their poverty and desperation in order to manipulate and/or coerce them into selling drugs. After we allegedly defeated Jim Crow in the 60’s, there was less than a generation between that time and when we ramped up our incarceration rates (see the Wikipedia page) thanks to the war on drugs. Who do you guess that affected? The racism was still there, hidden behind layers of misdirection and white indignation toward drugs, the politically-constructed Great Satan.
This higher-order racism managed to abstract itself away from first-order racism in order to implement a functional equivalent. It is difficult to say what the real motives here were (EDIT: it was racism. Click through to my post on Jerry Falwell). It could have been an intentional move to enforce racism. It could have been an opportunistic and unthinking (or calculated) move to vanquish a perceived great moral evil for political gain. It may even have been a criminally-funded means to keep minorities locked into poverty in order to serve as the slaves of the vice lords. Honestly, I don’t know.
What I know is this: the way we have turned the poor not only into the poor but into vicious criminals through the war on drugs is the single worst act of oppression we currently face. Say what you want about drugs. I could go on a long tangent discussing why drugs are medical and social problems, not criminal problems, but that’s really not the point here. The war on drugs is functional racism, no matter whether the sentiments attached to it are directly racist.
I’ll say it again, in case I wasn’t clear: the war on drugs is racism.
To the Christians reading this: your moral squeamishness about drugs and your love affair with conservative politics killed Trayvon Martin and threw millions more in jail, if it didn’t outright kill them, too. It perpetuates poverty in minority communities. It drives gang culture. And so on and so forth.
I understand that many people have good intentions in supporting our legal stance against drugs, but count the cost. Sure, drugs can ruin lives — but five years of incarceration (minimum) with a permanent felony record will ruin lives much worse than any sort of addiction.
There is blood on our hands — real blood, not abstract moral guilt. No manner of white guilt and not looking over our shoulders at black people will fix these problems, because we have institutionalized their criminality, setting the poor and the minorities against the government in an endless adversarial relationship. We have to end this now, before incidents like Trayvon become the norm.
Oh wait, they already are. The war on drugs is the war on black people, with Martin as one of many casualties.