Last Monday, Bill O’Reilly included a segment on marijuana criminalization in his Fox News show. When I tuned in to watch Stephen Gutwillig, Deputy Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, speak in support of marijuana legalization, I was struck by O’Reilly’s vitriolic response to marijuana policy reform. O’Reilly’s reaction to The New York Times’ recent call for marijuana legalization echoed the all-too-familiar tradition of engaging drug war politics in the larger battleground for racial justice.
O’Reilly dismissively remarked, “The left believes American law enforcement targets African-Americans for drug prohibition.” The racial bias and cost of the drug war is most certainly not a myth of the “left” but a tragic and pressing reality: in New York City, for example, roughly 87 percent of marijuana arrests are among black and Latino individuals, despite the wealth of evidence that marijuana is used and sold at roughly equal rates across racial lines in our country. In fact, on the same day of O’Reilly’s segment, The New York Times published “The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests,” reporting that black people are, on average, 3.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana offenses across the U.S.
O’Reilly expressed his opinion on legalization by saying, “It damages the children more than anyone, and poor second.” Drawing the distinction between “the children” and “the poor” supports an implicit understanding that some children are more worthy of concern and protection than others. O’Reilly even boldly asserted, “The left is basically saying…it’s blacks. You’re trapping the blacks. Because in certain ghetto neighborhoods, it’s part of the culture – nine-year-old boys and girls who are smoking it. And they don’t like that. They don’t want those kids to be targeted by the cops.”
What is O’Reilly saying? That nine-year-olds from “the ghetto” should be targeted by cops? Furthermore, black youth – the group most associated in our national consciousness as constituting the children of “the ghetto” – use illegal drugs less frequently overall than white youth. And we must all be alarmed and ashamed when we hear yet another “ghetto” culture argument enter our policy conversations. This language reflects a long history of demonizing and criminalizing marginalized communities – particularly those of color – through racially biased narratives about drugs.
While O’Reilly denounced drug use and sales – even asserting, “The New York Times and others want to go back to the good old days where there were six murders daily in the nation’s largest city” – he concludes by saying, “You want to do it in your house? Not bother anyone? Fine. Go outside with a joint or a pipe, you pay a fine. A hefty one if I’m running the show. But sell marijuana? You go to jail.” O’Reilly’s openness to some level of decriminalization hints that, however reluctantly, even he has been impacted by the mainstreaming of this issue. At the same time, he is flat out wrong and willfully ignorant about racial injustice in regards to the impact of the drug war.
O’Reilly’s perspective draws attention to the larger issue of racist, dog-whistle politics that are revealed, perpetuated, and created in debates on drug decriminalization in our country. His discussion on marijuana criminalization continues a conversation that polarizes our country, dehumanizes the people of our nation, and disavows the racial injustice of our past and present. As we all get caught in the vortex of these debates over marijuana legalization, we must confront and challenge the racialized rhetoric that continues to be a cause and cost of our drug war.
Audrey Berdahl-Baldwin is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.