New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, center, joins with May Day protesters on Wall Street on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in New York. Workers and activists marked May Day with rallies around the world.
New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, center, joins with May Day protesters on Wall Street on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in New York. Workers and activists marked May Day with rallies around the world. Mark Lennihan/AP

New York gubernatorial candidate and former “Sex and the City” co-star Cynthia Nixon has a pretty progressive campaign platform on racial equity and cannabis legalization—so what’s the problem?

New York gubernatorial candidate and former “Sex and the City” co-star Cynthia Nixon has been getting Mirandized—that is, read her rights—by black activists and elected officials about what terms of art she may and may not use when discussing cannabis, racial equity, and reparations. Speaking with Forbes.com after the New York City Cannabis Parade last weekend, Nixon said that people whose lives have been ravaged by the War on Drugs should “get the first shot” at opportunities to open legalized cannabis businesses. Since those people are disproportionately African American, Nixon has couched this proposal in racial equity terms.

“Arresting people—particularly people of color—for cannabis is the crown jewel in the racist war on drugs and we must pluck it down,” she told Forbes. “We [must] prioritize them in terms of licenses. It's a form of reparations.”

Nixon is far from alone in making that kind of connection. Former NAACP executive director Ben Jealous made essentially the same point when he gave a keynote speech at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

Yet, several high-profile African-American figures around New York have taken exception to Nixon’s comments, even suggesting that they may have been racially insensitive. Kia Morgan-Smith, reporting on it for TheGrio.com, said that Nixon “needs a history lesson after she offended the African American community by saying that legalizing marijuana could serve as reparations in black communities.”

MSNBC pundit Al Sharpton, who’s also a long-time New York City activist, tweeted that “putting pot shops in our communities is not reparations”:

The Black Lives Matter of Greater New York said that Nixon’s proposal “does a disservice”  by invoking stereotypes of African Americans as drug users, and “an even greater disservice” to the legacy of slavery and racial segregation.    

Nixon’s recommendations fall squarely in line with appeals that many black racial justice advocates, including The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, have been making for years. In fact, a staple item of the platform created by the Movement for Black Lives, which consists of Black Lives Matter chapters across the nation, says:

The retroactive decriminalization, immediate release and record expungement of all drug related offenses and prostitution, and reparations for the devastating impact of the “war on drugs” and criminalization of prostitution, including a reinvestment of the resulting savings and revenue into restorative services, mental health services, job programs and other programs supporting those impacted by the sex and drug trade.

It seems that some of the people attacking Nixon’s comments are doing so on the grounds that she misapplied, or maybe even misappropriated the term “reparations” in her Forbes interview. It is true that there is and has been a specific conversation about reparations for slavery in the Americas. However, there is no individual or organization that holds a monopoly on what reparations means or what format it must take. For Manhattan Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright, though, there can only be one definition.  

“Reparations is a repayment for the free labor that built this country,” said Wright in TheGrio.com. “It is insulting to my soul, that the free labor that my ancestors gave to this country would be equated with the selling of marijuana.”

The Movement for Black Lives statement evinces that there is room for talking about how the drug war must be corrected in reparative terms. Not only that, but the African-American Legislative Caucus of Maryland has been pushing the state to include reparations-styled clauses to its new medical cannabis program. Senator Cory Booker is currently shopping a “Marijuana Justice Act” bill that seeks reparative reforms to the nation’s drug laws—the Harvard Law Review argues that this legislation should include even more reparations language in it.

Meanwhile, Jamelle Bouie, the chief political correspondent for Slate.com, who is black, was one of the first to use “reparations” to describe race-focused cannabis legalization reforms. CityLab has also tagged “reparations” to the very real cannabis legalization programs currently taking hold in Oakland and in many other cities around California. In those cities, and also soon in the entire state of Massachusetts, those legalized cannabis policies have already shaped the exact thing that Nixon is calling for, and in explicitly racial justice terms. Almost all of those efforts have been led by African Americans.

The “reparations” dust-up may not just be a matter of semantics, though. Some black officials might just be opposing legalized cannabis on principle. There is, as it stands, a history of black politicians taking issue with the idea of legalized drugs—whether cannabis or any other illicit substance—in black communities. James Forman Jr. recounted much of this history in his Pulitzer prize-winning book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, which talks about the complicated decisions black political and religious leaders made decades ago about drugs that inadvertently exacerbated the drug war and mass incarceration crises.  

“The two main things [on racial justice and cannabis legalization] are getting rid of past [drug] convictions and making sure that black and brown and working class and formerly incarcerated people have a chance of being in the [legal cannabis] business,” said Forman in a phone interview with CityLab. “I suspect that those two positions would be, if not universally popular, they’d be reasonably popular today, which is different from the 1970s and 1980s, right, when you had a black community and a black church that was much more anti-decriminalization of marijuana across the board.”

It is possible, though, said Forman, that the problem could be as much about the messenger as it is the message, given that Nixon is white.

“The foundational issue is that there is a story of white America allowing drugs and vice to flourish in black communities—that was a big thing in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, you know, that the black part of town was where you went to get high and black people are very resentful of that,” said Forman. “So, against that history, when somebody comes along who's not a part of the community and says, ‘Listen, I'm allowing legalization of marijuana as a form of black liberation,’ that just feeds into that fear of [black people saying] I can’t trust you, or I can't trust your motives because I don't know where you're coming from, and I suspect that is a big part of the problem here.”

Some people are calling for Nixon to apologize. Given that she’s calling for new economic benefits for black people, and for changes to a criminal justice system that has worked against black people, it’s not clear what she’d be apologizing for other than being white. However, Forman finds nothing wrong with Nixon seeking forgiveness, not based on politics, but rather out of a genuine human case for reconciliation.

“You weren't talking about reparations for slavery, you were talking about reparations or a racial justice response to a history of over-incarceration and over-punishment and racist prosecution of the drug war,” said Forman. “In that context, I don't think any of the people that are criticizing her would have any grounds to disagree. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying you were misinterpreted and apologizing and clarifying—what's the downside of that?”

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