During a legislative coffee session at St. Catherine Hospital on Saturday, Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, decided to instruct the audience in the history of drug laws in the United States. After explaining that “they outlawed all types of drugs” in the 1930s, he asked, “What was the reason why they did that?”
His explanation was astonishing: “One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, was that the African Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off to those drugs just because of their character makeup, their genetics and that.”
Black Americans were “basically users”? They abused drugs because of their “character makeup” and “genetics”? Although Alford apologized and claimed he was referring to marijuana’s “negative effects on society and more specifically the damaging consequences on the African-American community,” it’s impossible to misinterpret his original comments. He wasn’t expressing a general concern about the “negative effects” of drug use in the 1930s – he was arguing that black people are biologically and culturally predisposed to abuse drugs.
And why did he preface his assertion with the words, “I hate to say it”? That’s the sort of thing people say when they think they’re about to courageously tell members of the audience some truth they don’t want to hear. If Alford was actually making the anodyne statement he claims he was making, no disclaimer would have been necessary.
We shouldn’t be willing to countenance an apology that distorts and euphemizes what was actually said. Nor should Sen. John Doll and Rep. John Wheeler, both Republicans from Garden City, evade criticism: They were sitting right next to Alford as he spoke, and neither of them offered a rejoinder to their colleague’s false and repugnant comments. While both lawmakers later said they disagreed with Alford, it’s disturbing that they didn’t immediately take issue with what he was saying in front of their constituents.
Lawmakers have been quick to unequivocally denounce Alford, who has resigned his committee leadership positions. Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, pointed out that Americans have a long history of weaponizing falsehoods to suppress marginalized groups: “Unfounded stereotypes have been the basis of racist and gender discrimination from the inception of our country.” Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, made a similar observation: “I think that is outrageous. For a sitting state representative to say that, I just can’t believe it. You can’t put everybody into one category. He should be more of a statesman and get facts.”
Speaking of the facts, Alford should take a look at the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which reports that 53.7 percent of white people aged 12 or older have used illicit drugs at some point in their lives, compared with 46 percent of black people. He’ll find similar racial discrepancies in marijuana use: Almost half of white people aged 12 or older have used it, while 41.7 percent of black people have. These gaps persist for Americans who are 18 or older. However, black people are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white people.
No matter what Alford says now, it’s clear that he really believed what he told that audience last weekend. He really believed that the “genetics” and “character” of African Americans prime them to be drug abusers. In his apology, Alford said “substance abuse is a blight on our society,” but his comments on Saturday will be a blight on the rest of his career.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.