Wacky Weed, Tacky Racism: The HigherEd Dead End

I will live a long time and not forgive the Internet for making me read David Brooks’ New York Times weed opus.

If you missed it, I apologize in advance. This week David Brooks responded to Colorado’s recent decriminalization of marijuana with a retrospective on his own experience smoking the wacky tobacky. In “Weed — Been There. Done That” Brooks makes a case for a “moral ecology” that curbs individual freedom for the collective betterment of potheads that would be better served devoting their energies to higher aspirations like running track. If you think I’m minimizing his argument to be glib, I dare you to read it. That is his argument.

It’s typical PREAM linkbait kind of fare. But, as I have argued, in linkbait there are often unexamined body counts and the bodies are often brown.

The ACLU released a report, based on federal arrest data and self-reported crime reports, that detailed racial disparities in marijuana arrests. The report found that over half of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana possession. Self-reports of drug usage show that whites use marijuana more than blacks, yet blacks are over 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use.

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From ACLU report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White”

Racial disparities in arrests and sentencing guidelines have largely focused on the egregious legal distinctions made between powder cocaine and its derivative form of crack cocaine. Crack is disproportionately used by poor and minority drug users and powder cocaine is largely a wealthy, white recreational drug. Michelle Alexander does a great job of detailing the devastating effects of this racialized and classed distinction on African American communities. But, the racial discrepancies in marijuana arrests are just as significant. The ACLU makes a passing mention of federal student aid and drug convictions in its report. African Americans, particularly African American men, are more likely to be arrested for recreational drug use and consequently barred from receiving financial aid to pay for college after paying their debt to society.

We can thank Bill Clinton for that.

In 1998 the President who had coyly admitted to getting high (“I didn’t inhale”) saw fit to sign a bizarre drug conviction restriction into federal student aid policy. I say bizarre not only because the law would have disqualified him from taking out a student loan to go to Yale had he been arrested with his un-inhaled joint back in the day. But, it’s also bizarre because there was no huge social clamor for the amendment. It’s not as if roaming bands of potheads were banging down the doors to financial aid offices, leaving seeds and stems on the office furniture. The amendment was purely a moral invective from a single house member: Republican Mark Souder.

The reauthorization mandated that, “A student who has been convicted of any offense under any Federal or State law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be eligible to receive any [federal] grant, loan, or work assistance.” The clause prevented those convicted of even minor misdemeanor weed possession from applying for student aid for one year after one offense, two years for two offenses and indefinitely after multiple offenses.

The racial disparities in marijuana arrests highlighted by the ACLU in 2010 were already clear in arrest data in 1998. Civil liberties groups pointed this out to Congress and Clinton at the signing of the bill.

In 2004 I was working in a career cosmetology school. Most of the students were women. On occasion a man would set up an admissions appointment. Almost all of those men were black and were trying to rebuild their lives after serving time. They would come to the cosmetology school because it was one of the few that offered full financial aid — grants and loans — to pay the tuition.

The did not want to do women’s hair but in North Carolina a cosmetology license also credentialed hair cutting, ie barbering. I would add that barbering in the black community has a long history of incubating black business ownership. Like black salons for women, barbershops have afforded black men a chance to earn legal income when racism and criminal convictions shut them out of the labor market. Excessive professionalization of the field has increased the financial costs of setting up a shop and narrowed that opportunity to self-sufficiency. The men who came to see me wanted really wanted a barber’s license. But, they were willing to absorb the extra cost and time to get a cosmetology license if it meant being able to finance their tuition.

Setting tuition at career colleges and administering financial aid is a complex calculus. The tuition has to be high enough to justify administering aid and to meet the accreditation requirements to qualify to process federal aid. For that reason, the tuition at Empire Beauty Schools was more than twice that of area cosmetology schools and more than 3 to 4 times that of barber schools. The men really wanted the less expensive barber license. But, paying $3-4000 in cash to a barber school, out of pocket, without aid was a considerable financial burden for poor men. It is especially cost-prohibitive if you’ve spent the last few years in jail and face the unwelcome job market for ex-offenders.

In contrast, the $45 application fee at Empire Beauty School was manageable. I’ve talked before about how social conditions lend themselves to short-term financial forecasting of poor students in for-profit career colleges. For $45 a poor student could mortgage future earning potential with a student loan for a license they hoped would increase their earning potential. In the case of the few men I met with, that hoped for increase was basically anything more than the zero they were able to earn legally in the job market with a criminal record and few skills.

I never enrolled a single black man at Empire Beauty School. Again, a few came. I can recall one Latino male. None of the black hopefuls could get past the box on the federal financial aid form that asked if they had been convicted of a drug offense. I seem to remember the Latino male not being able to provide a social security number.

I turned all of those men away.

Brooks’ rumination on his stoner days is kind of funny. It’s certainly elitist. But it is also an example of the two Americas we’ve fomented through legislative, cultural, and organizational boundaries that disrupt every single path for opportunity available for those not born to wealth and privilege.

No one need make a black code anymore. They need only embed moral ecologies in laws that have nothing to do with morality and wait for systemic disadvantages in neighborhoods, schools, and racist policing to do the rest.

I believe brother Langston Hughes asked us once what happens to a dream deferred? Does it fester or explode, he asked.

Or does it just go up in smoke?

12 thoughts on “Wacky Weed, Tacky Racism: The HigherEd Dead End

  1. The post makes a great critique of restrictions on financial aid based on criminal record as well as the disproportionate effect on minorities. However, I read Brooks’s piece and there is nothing elitist or racist in it at all. The attack on Brooks as a white elitist is itself racist and offensive. Can a white person not express an opinion supporting a law meant to prevent people from becoming potheads without being called a racist?

  2. Oh my god, thank you for this. I couldn’t be angrier at him and everyone who support drug laws they can’t even pretend to have abided by, and to hear you put the case against them so perfectly– well, so very grateful. I hope everyone hears you.

  3. This is a wonderful piece–a strong case, articulately and powerfully made. It is the first one of yours I have read. I look forward to reading more of your writing in the future. (P.S. I hope you will be around for a long time, so lose the bacon!) Good luck with your Ph.D. work.

  4. Excellent analysis. I eyed that box nervously many times when filling out financial aid forms. I would say that “luckily” I never had to check it – but as you’ve demonstrated, my ability to not check that box probably had more to do with me being a white girl raised in a middle-class suburb than with anything like “luck.”

  5. Yo, when blacks decide to sell pot behind closed doors and not on the street corner arrests will drop and the disparity will disappear.

  6. The other screwed-up thing here is that you need a license that costs thousands of dollars to cut hair. Occupational licensing seems like a very obscure issue to get excited about, but it has dramatic effects on poor people’s lives and would be relatively easy to fix.

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