Peeping Privilege: Jay-Z’s “The War On Drugs Was an Epic Fail” and Me

This brilliantly animated Op-Doc “The War on Drugs Was An Epic Fail” was featured on The New York Times’ website on September 15, 2016 and within a day, I saw that among my 1,343 friends, the piece had been shared 6 times. Not huge numbers, but the video seemed to have struck a chord within a diverse subset of my friend group. Friends whom I know have suffered the burdens of addiction, mothers of teenagers, the politically active, and those whose stories I do not fully know. The through-line is that these compassionate people who see that “the war on drugs” has played out as a war with far greater societal implications.

I walk through the world from a position of privilege. I’m a Black woman, not typically the group that you hear claiming that particular honor, but when I look at my life as a whole, my privilege is clear. My mommy and my daddy raised me in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, in a planned community, no less. My carefully orchestrated childhood led to an aspirational adolescence and carried me to college in the rolling hills of Ohio, to a quaint little college in a quaint little village perched quaintly on top of a hill. The student body looked like it was straight out of a college catalog:

You couldn’t stage this picture if you tried.

Clean, shining faces and L.L. Bean Boat and Totes, pearls, and Sperry Top-Siders abounded in our little piece of Midwestern perfection. And it was here, at this bastion on the hill, that I first saw such free and easy access to drugs.

I was not–am not– a drug user. I’ve been known to become incapacitated by a glass of wine on an empty stomach but as I mixed and mingled, the offer of something more potent than wine was always bandied about. We all understood that school was a safe place. It was safe for the dealers of the drugs and it was safe for the users of the drugs. Security was present to protect us, not inform on us. It was safe in all of the ways that we needed and wanted it to be.

The message seemed to be, “Do what you want how you want and we will cover you. We will not come after you. What you do will remain here; You are safe inside of these walls.”

Life is different on the outside. In the real world, the life outside of the cloistered communities of implied privilege, is where the war on drugs is really playing out.  Black and brown communities are disproportionally affected by mandatory minimum drug sentencing and the mass incarceration that has stemmed out. The destabilization of these communities leads to the  fraught relationships that we see playing out in the form of cell phone videos that end in death.

I’ve recently moved back to Brooklyn and I see, in my neighborhood of brown people, a community. As part of this community, my privilege cannot be seen by looking at me from the outside– I like it like that. The war on drugs was an epic fail and straddling the fence between different worlds, I can see how it did and did not affect communities like mine. I feel safe and welcome in my adopted home– I hope that this continues to be true. Everyone deserves to have their safe space, just for the privilege of being a human being.

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