STERN: Booze, drugs and racism

Yesterday was my 21st birthday. It felt like a good time to write about alcohol. And drugs. And racism.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianAt college, if you don’t drink underage, you’re unusual. Just by walking around, we all smell pot on a near-daily basis. We all know someone who takes Adderall to do well on tests. We all know someone who does cocaine.

In fact, according to data compiled by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, college campuses are sites of some of the most rampant alcohol and drug use in America. Full-time college students have rates of alcohol or drug addiction at nearly three times the national average. Binge drinking, prescription drug abuse and marijuana use have risen across the country in the last twenty years, but nowhere as dramatically as at college. Yale is certainly no exception.

If you believe the Department of Justice, the vast majority of drug dealers are white, middle-to-upper-middle-class student-aged males. Practically all drugs are dealt more by whites than by people of color, more by the bourgeoisie than by the working class. And, according to most studies, all drugs — from pot to heroine to crack — are used more by whites than by any other population. Elite colleges in particular are hubs of drug dealing.

Yet so few college students get arrested for alcohol or drug-related crimes. Especially at Yale. In a recent ranking of arrests on college campuses, Yale had just 1.09 drug arrests and 2.27 alcohol arrests per 1,000 students, considerably below even the college average.

Contrast these numbers with those from another locale: poor, mostly black urban communities. Being black and from the inner-city means you are more than three times as likely to be arrested for drug possession as being white and living elsewhere. This has led to a cultural narrative predicated on a false and fundamentally racist perception of criminality among non-white populations. Anti-drug rhetoric has justified a grotesque expansion of American prisons over the last 20 years. About one-third of all young black men are behind bars or on parole or probation. Again, it’s worth stressing that far more young white men are using and dealing drugs.

So, what can we do about this?

Well, a lot. Historically speaking, college students were a constituency whose activism wielded immense power. The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square were college students. The activists who sat-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter and went down south for Freedom Summer were college students. Perhaps most memorably, the protesters that changed the debate surrounding the Vietnam War were college students.

Yet you are unlikely to see protests or community organizing or activism of any kind among college students when it comes to the racism of drug laws or mass incarceration in general. We are the beneficiaries of this bigoted system. We aren’t being arrested, and we get to have all the fun and make all the money. Who would rock that party boat?

Again, history bears this out. College protesters are powerful, but they are self-interested. Contrary to popular myth, anti-war activism began out of fear that sheltered college kids might be subject to the draft. The infamous protests at Columbia largely began after the university’s president submitted the names of students with lower GPAs to the Selective Service. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) used a fear of conscription to target graduating seniors for participation in protests. And anti-war activism on college campuses was not especially widespread until after the 1969 decision to eliminate the deferment for students and replace it with a lottery — thus exposing college kids across the country to the draft. Within days, the rallies really started. At Bowling Green, for instance, where anti-war protesters had been mocked before 1969, nearly the entire campus took to the streets following the institution of the lottery.

On the first day of my life during which I can drink legally, I find myself wishing that my younger self and my younger friends had known a bit more fear. We are all guilty of complacency.

Perhaps the only way to get college students to truly care about the racism of drug laws and their enforcement is to make them subject to the same laws as everybody else. Perhaps then we will wield our political power and renew the activism of yore.

Of course, I don’t want to see more arrests or more imprisonment at Yale, any more than I would have wanted to see more soldiers sent to Vietnam. But if a personal stake is the only way to awaken all of us to racism inherent in our privileged lives, then perhaps that is the price we should have to pay.

Scott Sternis a junior in  Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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