In Defense of Loosies: Jon Stewart Was Wrong

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I like Jon Stewart, and I usually find myself in agreement with him. But, this past week he said something that was both wrong and reflective of a naïve understanding of race and racism. In a segment in which he excoriated –mostly rightly- politicians on the right for their interpretations of the outcomes of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand juries, he mocked Sen. Rand Paul for suggesting that part of the problem was a cigarette tax and city health department regulations that insisted upon the arrest of people attempting to circumvent the effects of the tax by illegally selling individual cigarettes.


“The cigarette tax is truly the least salient aspect of this case,” Stewart told us. “It’s like saying, ‘You know the problem with the Hindenberg? Government parking regulations…” That’s not right. Not right at all.


Understand that racism operates in complex ways, and is not just about the motivations of the cop who confronted Eric Garner. It is also about the series of events that led to the encounter in the first place. More specifically, public health laws were put in place to make it harder for poor people to smoke cigarettes. The $5.85 per pack tax that Sen. Paul referenced is, in fact, a tax that disproportionately is paid by blacks. Moreover, bans on the sale of “loosies” (individual cigarettes) are also public health policies designed specifically to prevent poor people from smoking.


I don’t smoke [cigarettes], and never have. I don’t endorse it, and I fully acknowledge that it can kill you and will certainly make you unhealthy. However, I also don’t think it’s just to create laws designed to target poor people’s abilities to do something that the law says is legal. The natural response to these sorts of laws is the creation of a black market, and the response to this has been –as Sen. Paul noted- an effort on the part of law enforcement to crack down on people circumventing these unfair laws.


It’s interesting that people who decry the unequal sentencing of crack and powder cocaine don’t see the unfair processes at work here. In both cases, the same mechanism is at work: 1) the creation of laws to regulate an addictive drug, 2) the desire to protect poor populations leads to policies that disparately affect poor people, 3) a government policy designed to crack down –via arrest- on the kinds of use of said addictive drug that only poor people engage in.


Sen. Paul is absolutely right: we need to think carefully about how all of our laws might place poor and minority groups unfairly in the crosshairs. Eric Garner was selling loosies, but selling loosies should never have been illegal in the first place. The cops involved were in a position to attack Garner because of policies passed that urged policemen to go after petty criminals. In fact, subsequent analysis has shown that the particular borough that Mr. Garner was killed in is especially vigilant in going after petty street crimes of this sort. 


I understand. This has been a shitty week, and picking on blockhead Republicans can feel good. And, absolutely, there has been plenty of blockheadedness this week to pick on. But, in a way, Sen. Paul is actually offering us a more useful version of racism than most people –even (especially?) on the mainstream political left- have espoused. In 2014, racism is not just about a single angry cop. It’s also about what puts black people into encounters with police in the first place. Part of that is explainable by individual prejudice, no doubt, but a lot of it is also incomprehensible without thinking about the ways in which policies put minorities in the crosshairs. Police states of the sort that many minorities live in are in part created from a vast array of laws and policies (some well-intended, some not) that limit and define folks’ daily lives, choices, and possibilities.


One of my frustrations with the use of simplistic phrases like “white privilege” is that too often they are deployed as stand-ins for actual explanations, and as such people unfamiliar with the argument get the sense that when liberals say “white privilege” they refer to some vast conspiracy of malevolent crackers scheming to bring down blackie. That’s a cartoon vision of the world. In the real world, fixing racism is a battle on a thousand fronts, and one of those fronts is asking ourselves whether certain laws, policies or enforcement practices unfairly target blacks. Crack cocaine laws were unfair, but so are loosie laws.


In an earlier point in the above video, Jon Stewart laments that in America there exists “a system that is applied unequally and with prejudice…” Yes, that is absolutely true. But, in our attempt to understand the full weight, breadth, and truth of this idea, we need to be more expansive in our thinking. As long as cities and states pass laws that disproportionately target the habits, preferences, behaviors, lifestyles, and ideas of marginalized groups, we need to think long and hard as to whether they are really the right idea.


It’s worth remembering (though Michelle Alexander seems to want you to forget) that it was black leaders at the city, state, and national level that wanted tough new drug laws in the 1980s. In their effect, these laws were certainly discriminatory, but I’ve yet to read compelling evidence that that was the intent. Intent is important (!!!!), but it’s not everything. Similarly, there are very valid public health policies justifications for the cigarette laws that precipitated the confrontation with Eric Garner. In the case of crack cocaine sentencing, liberals and libertarians came together to decry these policies. The same thing should happen with respect to cigarettes, especially since the countervailing health concerns over crack are much greater than with cigarettes.


Of course, I’m not suggesting that you fix the police-black citizen problem by fixing cigarette laws. That would be facile. But, until all of our laws are written and enforced in ways that are fair to all parties, you create more situations in which police and minorities confront each other as adversaries.


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