It happens every time. I’m wrapping up a presentation to community leaders (I work for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition) on the need to reform drug laws and end the cycle of incarceration, disease and death for people who use drugs. The audience, skeptical at first, seems to be warming to the topic.
Then someone in the back of the room raises his hand.
“You’re right, we need to help people who are addicted to pills and heroin,” he says. “The face of drug use is changing. The kids dying now are from good homes.”
My heart sinks. Not again, I think. I stand there, blinking, wondering if I should ignore the implications of his statement or point out his obvious biases.
The face of drug use is changing. Good kids are dying now.
Not long ago, the national drug narrative had centered on stories of violent, inner-city “crackheads” and black mothers who gave birth to “crack babies” because they were too selfish to put their children’s needs before a quick fix.
Back when drug use was portrayed as primarily the vice of poor, black people (despite evidence that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rates) we had no qualms with sentences that condemned people to life-incarceration for minor drug crimes. But now that drugs are more visibly infiltrating white, middle-class neighborhoods, there are growing calls for mercy. Treatment is the new prison.
Which brings me to my dilemma. By pointing out the obvious bias in the (white) audience member’s comment, I risk embarrassing, angering or alienating him and losing his support for reforms that will benefit all races.
But how can I not say something?
I am reminded of what activist and writer Michelle Alexander pointed out in The New Jim Crow, her groundbreaking book on racism in the drug war. If we try to reform the criminal justice system without talking about race, we might make short-term gains. But given the number of people who heavily benefit from the status quo (law enforcement, prison personnel, lawyers, private prison investors), it will take little for the debate to turn back into one about morals and being “tough on crime,” with the implicit message that some people are just not worthy to be treated like the rest of us. And if the majority of those people happen to be people of color, so be it.
So recently I reached out to some experts on social justice and messaging to ask for advice. One of these experts is Alan Jenkins, executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, a national social justice communications lab that works on messaging around divisive issues such as immigration and race.
It’s his job to teach people how to effectively communicate with one another without insulting, alienating, or pandering. I asked him the question that has plagued me for years: How do you talk to white people about race in the drug war?
First off, Jenkins explains that in order to talk to white people about race we need to understand how many white people view race. Most white people see racism as an interpersonal issue, rather than a structural one. That means that most believe that there are racist people in the world and that racism is bad, but they don’t see structural problems, such as inequality of employment opportunities, or institutionalized injustice.
For example, many white people might look at the disproportionate number of black men in prison and assume that black men have more criminal tendencies. They might not consider that the criminal justice system itself may be designed in such a way that black people from certain neighborhoods are more likely to be policed, convicted and incarcerated than white people who commit the same crimes.
Additionally, many white people are unaware of their own unconscious biases. People who comment about “the changing face of drug use” probably don’t even realize the racial or class-based implications of their own statement. They aren’t consciously comparing the poor minority drug user who used to be all over the news to the “all-American” white kids whose deaths are reported now.
Jenkins explains that to talk to most white people about race, you need to understand where they are, which in most cases is in a place of minimal awareness of the biases that exist within systems and within themselves. Importantly, if white people see themselves as colorblind, calling them “racist” will only alienate them—making it difficult or impossible to achieve your goal of persuading them to see things differently.
Instead, Jenkins says that we should employ a tactic called Value-Problem-Solution-Action (VPSA). In action, VPSA would look something like this:
Scenario: You are having a conversation about the need for drug policy reform with a white person when they say: “We need to reform drug laws because good kids are dying now.” How do you respond?
Step One: Find a common value. Justice and equal opportunity are pretty universal values (at least people think so). So you can start by emphasizing that all people should have the opportunity to live healthy, full lives, regardless of what kind of families they come from. The person you’re speaking with is likely to agree with that sentiment. Point out that “good” people come in many different shapes and sizes.
Step Two: Identify the problem. Let the person know that our current drug laws create inequalities in opportunity for people to lead healthy, full lives. For example, when judges see people from affluent families, they might order them to treatment instead of jail. But someone viewed as disposable—often a person of color—may receive a jail sentence instead of treatment for the same crime. Point out that any narrative about “good kids” and “bad kids” is far too simplistic. Is there really that sharp a divide?
Step Three: Propose a solution. Now that you’ve prepared the ground, “come up with” a better alternative. For example, shouldn’t we reform laws to make it harder for unconscious biases to influence policing, sentencing, and incarceration of people who use drugs? Wouldn’t that be fairer?
Step Four: Create a call for action. If the person you’re speaking with indicates agreement, see if you can gain something concrete out of that. Encourage them to get involved with organizations that are working to reform drug laws or write their local lawmakers to demand support for legislation that will improve equal opportunity.
Sound like a plan?
Even if the person you’re directly speaking with doesn’t grasp the message you’re conveying, other people in earshot may well catch on. Most people honestly believe in equality and justice, but often negative stereotypes can trump those beliefs without people even realizing it.
So the best way to talk to a white person about race is to steer the conversation towards those core values—explaining the problem without attacking the speaker—and close with a solution and action step.
According to Jenkins, effectively communicating about race in the drug war doesn’t mean that you have to mention it at every opportunity, or shove it down people’s throats. Those tactics will likely do more harm than good. It means finding strategic times and opportunities for those conversations to take place and also choosing the best spokespeople to deliver the message (hint: It might not be you).
Credibility with your target group is key. For example, if you want to talk to law enforcement about bias in policing, your best opportunity is for a respected member of law enforcement who recognizes the biases that occur to communicate that point to other officers—not an angry mob yelling that all cops are racist.
There are lots of examples in the news today of attempts to communicate about race that only create greater divisions, rather than healing them. But Jenkins is optimistic about the way the overall conversation about drug use is heading.
“I think Americans are starting to think about drug laws in a more clear-headed way now than we have in decades,” he says. “We have to keep pushing towards a more sophisticated conversation. This is the moment for us to double down and create a system that reflects our highest values.”
The drug-law reforms of recent years are cause for hope. But to maintain momentum, we need to proceed with awareness of how race can be used to vilify drug users and turn the conversation back to one on moral failings, instead of health.
We need to learn how to communicate effectively, to create action instead of accusation.
And we need to learn how to talk to white people about race.