I have a new favorite athlete: Sha’Carri Richardson. She is outspoken, stylish and lightning fast. She won the 100-meter U.S. Olympic trials in Oregon last month, sporting Technicolor hair and a personality to match.
But she won’t be competing in the Olympics in Tokyo. On Tuesday, U.S. track officials confirmed that Richardson would be left off the team after testing positive for marijuana. Under international rules, weed is a performance-enhancing drug.
That’s ridiculous, as anyone who has smoked it could tell you. But is it racist, too?
Yes, according to comedian Seth Rogen, U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a host of other critics. “Their decision lacks any scientific basis,” AOC tweeted about the suspension of Ms. Richardson, who is Black. “It’s rooted solely in the systematic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.”
No, it isn’t. Have anti-drug laws been weaponized across our history to stigmatize and oppress racial minorities? You bet. But that’s very different from saying that the decision to suspend Richardson was racist, as well.
And the words matter, especially right now. We’re in the midst of a long-delayed national debate about the many ways that racism has discolored our history, including our drug laws. Yet we will inhibit that discussion if we pretend that history is destiny, which is the worst myth in American life.
Racists invoke that fallacy all the time: Young Black men are convicted of a disproportionate fraction of violent crime, for example, so any young Black man must be a violent criminal. But anti-racists can fall victim to the same poor logic: A racist practice occurred in the past, so it is also happening now.
On drugs, alas, our racist history is all too clear. The first panic over cocaine dates to the early 20th century, when rumors spread that African American men were using the drug and assaulting white women. Marijuana was tabooed in the 1930s when it became associated with Mexican Americans, who supposedly went on homicidal sprees while under the influence of “locoweed.”
For many years crack cocaine brought more severe jail sentences than the powdered kind, because crack was more often used by Black people. And even when different races consume a drug in similar amounts, minorities are penalized more harshly for it. Black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, although the two races have roughly equal usage rates.
But none of that means Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension was itself racist. To demonstrate that, you’d have to show that she was somehow treated differently because she is Black. And we have no evidence — none — of any discrimination along those lines.
The World Anti-Doping Agency processed 130 athletes who tested positive for marijuana in 2019, the last full year of competition. So far as I can tell, Black people were not disproportionately disciplined for it. The most famous pot penalty was incurred in 2009 by swim champion and Baltimore native Michael Phelps, who is white. He was suspended from competition for three months — as opposed to Ms. Richardson’s 30-day ban — after news photos surfaced of him smoking weed from a bong.
The difference here is between structural and individual racism, which lies at the heart of our current reckoning. As educators and historians have reminded us, rules and laws can have racist roots without being racist in any particular case.
But we seem to be ignoring that distinction in the case of Sha’Carri Richardson. Yes, the prohibition on marijuana is connected to our ugly history around race. Yet we distort both the past and the present when we imagine that history operates on everyone in exactly the same way.
We also do a disservice to Ms. Richardson, who has drawn support across the political spectrum. Denouncing her suspension, Florida GOP representative Matt Gaetz noted that marijuana was “legal in most states” and didn’t “impact performance.” Even Donald Trump Jr. got in on the act, urging the Olympics to let Ms. Richardson compete. “I’m pretty sure weed has never made anyone faster,” he tweeted.
If left-leaning critics continue to condemn Ms. Richardson’s suspension as racist, will conservatives remain on her side? I doubt it. In a bitterly polarized era, we have a rare bipartisan consensus: Sha’Carri Richardson should race for America in the Olympics. Let’s not ruin it by injecting specious charges of racism, which won’t help Richardson. Or America.
Jonathan Zimmerman (email@example.com) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech And Why You Should Give a Damn,” which was published in April by City of Light Press.