Where Is Your Outrage? The Trayvon Martin Case

By Maia Szalavitz 03/29/12

The murder of Trayvon Martin has sparked national anti-racism protests. But a smear-campaign alleging that the unarmed 17-year-old was "on drugs"—and therefore dangerous—has provoked only silence in the recovery community.

The Usual Suspect: George Zimmerman; Trayvon Martin photo via

In recent days, new information about Trayvon Martin—the unarmed 17-year-old black youth whose shooting death has sparked national outrage—has been made public. Leaked school records reveal that Martin had been suspended for possession of a trace amount of marijuana—and audiotape of the 911 call made by Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, records the killer saying, “This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something.”

Whether or not Zimmerman actually believed that Martin was behaving suspiciously due to drug use is an open question. But the drug-related turn taken by the coverage of this story should be of concern to everyone in the recovery community. That Martin was likely killed because he was a young black man has provoked understandable protests from the African-American community. By contrast, the fact that the killer may have rationalized this as acceptable because he saw Martin as a worthless drug user seems to have offended the sensibilities of very few former addicts. This silence may call for some soul-searching on our part.

Let’s start by asking the one question so far left unasked by the media: does drug use really tell us anything about someone’s character—for example, that a drug user is inevitably, in Zimmerman’s words, “up to no good”? Research finds no evidence that marijuana provokes violence. Quite the contrary: most studies on the issue either show no effect or a clear reduction in aggression. And no illegal drug—not meth, cocaine or heroin—beats alcohol in the ability to incite attacks and assaults. Moreover, even alcohol’s link to violence isn’t absolute: culture and previous exposure to violence play a larger part in whether a boozer becomes belligerent or blasé.

Why, then, do we persist in linking drugs with threat and view even non-addicted use as a sign of immorality? No one would think much of the fact that a shooting victim had, say, gotten a speeding ticket—and yet despite the fact that some states view marijuana use as a similarly low-level offense, a revelation of the use of a drug taken at least once by about half the adult population still carries a stigmatizing charge. No one views a daily coffee habit as a mark of bad character, even though caffeine causes physical dependence while marijuana does not.

So what accounts for the difference? In a word, racism.

The negative characteristics Americans associate with drug users are eerily similar to racist stereotypes: lazy, hedonistic, dishonest, suspicious; out of control; willing to harm others to get what they want. The similarities are by no means a coincidence given the racist origins of drug prohibition.

As I wrote earlier this week in Time magazine:

It’s useful to remember that the nation’s vehement antidrug rhetoric is rooted in explicit racism. For example, the first state laws banning cocaine were passed in response to media reports about how the drug made black men homicidal, prone to raping white women and, worst of all to the police, impervious to bullets. An article about the issue in the New York Times in 1914 was headlined “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.”

Similarly, the first state legislation banning opium was linked to fears of Chinese men allegedly using the drug to seduce white women. The campaign for national marijuana prohibition, which came in the 1930s, involved racism against both African Americans and Mexicans. One advocate of banning the drug wrote in the Times in 1935: “Marijuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration.…Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marijuana cigarets to school children.”

The negative characteristics Americans implicitly associate with drug users are eerily similar to those that characterize racist stereotypes. Users are seen as lazy, hedonistic, dishonest, shady, devious and suspicious. They’re immoral, out of control, and willing to harm others to get what they want. The similarities between grotesque racial caricature and the stereotypical addict are by no means a coincidence given the racist origins of drug prohibition.

Consequently, as Michelle Alexander argues in her new bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Americans haven’t actually stopped discriminating against minorities; we’ve just changed the language we use when we do so:

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “'criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Drug laws, of course, are one of the biggest factors in the mass criminalization of black people: for example, in California, blacks are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for marijuana crimes than people of other races, despite similar levels of drug use and sales. Nationwide, half of all people serving time in state prison for drug crimes are black, even though African Americans make up only 13% of the population. In New York City, 87% of those arrested in the now-notorious "stop and frisk" program are black or Latino.

Unfortunately, people in recovery have done very little to address this issue; if anything, we’ve often reinforced the negative stereotypes with our own rhetoric. Every time someone utters a cliché like “When is an addict lying? When his lips are moving,” we reproduce these stigmatizing ideas. Every time we talk about addicts as inherently dishonest, as only responding to “tough love,” as lacking in character, we risk triggering the racism associated with these images.

In reality, people with addiction aren’t all liars, manipulators and con artists. When we say that they are, we support not only our own criminalization and punitive treatment but also that of racial minorities whose images American culture has despicably tied to these same stereotypes. If we fail to recognize our own complexity and individuality, we allow these dehumanizing cartoons of our behavior to be used to make policies that are harmful not only to current and former drug users but to those who are “mistaken” for us.

Of course, there’s no doubt that people with addiction sometimes behave poorly, or that addiction can sometimes negatively affect our moral compass. But that doesn’t justify the suspicion that addicts, especially when high, typically behave immorally or are “up to no good.”

Using drugs doesn’t make anyone subhuman; the mere fact of use—even addiction—shouldn’t be a way to signify someone is “lesser” or not worthy of life. Whether Travyon Martin was stone cold sober or stoned out of his mind is as relevant to his character as whether he was wearing a hoodie or a three-piece suit. Until we in the recovery community have the courage to advocate for this perspective, we won’t be able to improve either addiction care or defeat the racism that mars our justice system.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). 

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.