Let me tell you a little bit about how I spent last Saturday night. As all great nights go, it began in the JE library (the translation grind never stops, not even on weekends). But soon, I closed up my books and went out to a friend’s party, wandering down Elm Street around 11 p.m.
For those who don’t know, Elm Street at 11 p.m. is utter chaos. As the main thoroughfare between the party at Toad’s (Soads, because it’s Saturday) and other Yale parties, the streets become an outdoors staging ground for the indoor revelry to come. As my friend and I walked up Elm, we navigated our way between packs of drunk college students. Five fights, my friend counted, broke out in front of us. And by fights, I do not simply mean heated arguments: I’m talking about punches and kicks. All the while, police sat parked in their cars and did nothing.
Before I go any further, I want to talk briefly about the purpose of this article. It is most certainly not a hit-piece against party-goers. Instead, it is a critique leveraged specifically at the ways many college students, both Yalies and their peers at nearby institutions, comport themselves in public spaces. Especially at night. And especially when drunk.
Imagine for a moment what would have happened had the people on Elm Street that night been New Haven residents — perhaps people of color, perhaps working-class people — instead of the affluent and overwhelmingly white college students who comprise the majority of Toad’s-ers. Would that behavior have been treated quite as leniently? The answer is, obviously, no.
Why doesn’t the same standard apply to the upper-middle class college student — who is demonstrably more likely to be a consumer of illegal drugs? Why did the police simply stand by that Saturday night?
Our institutions, both academic and judicial, enshrine two drastically different punishment paradigms. When a college student takes a drug he is “experimenting.” When the young cashier who lives down the street does the same she is a “user” and lives outside the demarcation that exempts her better-off peers. For Yalies, it’s a lukewarm mantra of “don’t hurt anyone else and learn from your mistakes, and we’ll turn a blind eye.” For everyone else, it’s a stringent, strident one-strike ballgame.
The profound shamefulness of this double standard should be apparent to everyone. Our privilege as students to flagrantly violate the law without fear of punishment or even rebuke is perhaps one of the most striking condemnations of our society’s legal system and social priorities. It is emblematic of the racial and class divides that cut through our society. It reflects, too, the dark side of the cultural trope of college as an idyllic space where the regulations and constrictions of the outside world do not apply. We all know on some level that this conception is illusory, but its potency is undeniable. There is a pervasive sense among the student body that the choices we make here are simply wiped from the record after we graduate. One of my favorite Hebrew phrases encapsulates perfectly this lack of respect and self-awareness: derech eretz, literally “the way of the land.” And it’s the basic standard of behavior expected of every inhabitant of a space. Think of it as a Jewish sort of prime directive, to borrow liberally from Spock.
The extent to which this “anything goes” drunken license permeates Yale’s culture cannot be overstated. With some important exceptions, Yale students consider themselves to be above the law. This is reinforced at both the social and institutional levels. It is made abundantly clear to everyone at Yale, especially to incoming freshmen, that the problems that result from underage overdrinking will be treated by the authorities as issues of health, not as disciplinary infractions. The consumption of illegal drugs, while officially condemned, is tolerated in practice.
It takes only a short walk around any dorm to see this leniency at work. Don’t believe me? Just take a walk down Elm next Saturday and imagine the sort of drug bust the NHPD could pull off if they searched your residential college, your entryway, maybe even your suite. It’s upsetting, but unfortunately true: college students, especially white students, are the beneficiaries of a system that sets a stark double standard for punishment. Think about that the next time you go out.
Gabriel Groz is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .