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We Need to Talk About Racist Drug Policing on College Campuses

Those who "have space" to party are "the ones who won't get caught" by Campus Police, according to Steve Clark, a Wake Forest University graduate.

On any given day in America, you can walk into a prison and witness the racial disparities of our criminal justice system. According to Human Rights Watch, police arrest black people for drug possession more than three times as often as white people, thus ensuring that people of color are outrageously and disproportionately incarcerated for illegal drug usage. This is despite the fact that white Americans are far more likely than black Americans to use cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and most other illegal drugs.

How does this happen? In a way, this is simply a by-product of America’s historically-institutionalized racism. On white privilege, Emory University Philosophy Professor George Yancy writes in the New York Times, “[White people] are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in ‘the talk’ that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers.”

The discrepancy of white Americans who never face prison time for committing the same—and often worse—drug crimes as black Americans is just another way society bends for white Americans.

The college-aged population in America uses illegal drugs at the highest rate. According to a 2008 report by The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, students at historically black colleges and universities use marijuana less frequently than students at largely white institutions. And while there are roughly five white 18- to 25-year-old drug users for every one black 18- to 25-year-old drug user, almost half of all young people in prison for drugs are black.

Dr. Algernon Austin, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, has noted in The Huffington Post that young white people are the “anti-targets” in the war on drugs. According to Dr. Austin, “They are invisible to law enforcement because they do not fit the popular stereotype of a drug dealer, or their drug dealing is consciously ignored by collegiate authorities.” On the other hand, Dr. Austin points out that police officers routinely enter low-income, minority neighborhoods in active pursuit of drug users. Young people of color do not have the luxury to go unnoticed.

Similarly, Wake Forest University students made headlines in 2014 when they created a documentary, #WakeUpWakeForest to showcase how police treatment toward black and mainstream fraternity parties differed. Class of 2014 Wake Forest graduate Steve Clark, a black Millennial, confirmed the events in the documentary to Generation Progress. When asked about the university’s response to illegal drug usage, Clark said that he didn’t observe any outward preferential treatment during his college career, but that “Wake Forest did a good job of keeping things under wraps.” He also said, “It’s less a matter of policing, and it’s more a matter of who has space for these activities. The ones who have space are the ones who won’t get caught.”

Since the black fraternities at Wake Forest are much smaller, they receive much less funding than mainstream, predominantly white fraternities. Less funding ultimately leads to heavily-regulated parties in public areas. On the other hand, mainstream fraternities have the financial resources to use private lounges and houses for parties that are a “safe haven” from police scrutiny. These financial differences only further the disproportionate policing toward black students.

Adwoa Boateng shared similar experiences as a black student at the University of Maryland: “I have attended parties in the black community where everything is shut down within the first hour. My freshman year, I witnessed someone getting arrested after a party was shut down because he was standing near the sidewalk on his phone.” She also recalled parties where campus police officers used pepper spray to make arrests. Boateng agreed with Clark that getting caught with illegal drugs has a lot to do with which groups have resources. “Since Caucasian students tend to hold parties in satellite fraternity houses, they are removed from the campus area while social gatherings in the black community are held in apartments on or very close to campus.” And so although drugs like weed are accepted norms on campus, only certain people hold immunity from arrest.

This systematic discrimination is destructive for everyone, but especially for young people. The very things young people need to start their lives—like public housing assistance, federal financial aid, employment, and education tax credits—are denied to anyone who has been convicted of a felony drug offense. So not only are young black Millennials more likely to be sent to prison than their white counterparts for drug usage, but they also have a harder time re-entering society after getting out of jail. We need to look at college campuses critically—how can we eliminate institutionalized practices and policing that are inherently discriminatory? When black students are arrested for drug usage more frequently than white students, we need to question that. Compared to their white peers, black college students already face more student debt and racism-induced mental health crises, and less support from school administrations—they do not need the added pressure of a possible felony drug offense looming in the distance.

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