The Fifty Nifty United States: Colorado

This is the sixth (6/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The territorial ambitions of the United States in the nineteenth century demanded westward expansion, and Colorado was at the literal and metaphorical crossroads of that venture. Manifest Destiny collided with the existence of Native American peoples and their traditions. While much of the young United States was engaged in Civil War, settlers in Colorado battled with a confederation of Native peoples, at times with shocking brutality. While American settlers displaced Native people, Chinese-American immigrants received little in return for their hard labor in building the newly Americanized continent. The 1880 Hop Alley/Chinese Riot was the first race riot in the young city of Denver, fueled by the devastating living conditions available to the city's Asian-American residents.

Photo credit - Eric Lerum.

Photo credit - Eric Lerum.

While contemporary Colorado is a place of outdoor wonders fueled by its libertarian hipster mystique, the state still suffers a legacy of hardboiled American racism. The Ku Klux Klan had allies in the Colorado governor's mansion through the 1920s, and as the state's Latino population has expanded, exclusionary attitudes towards immigrants have percolated. Earlier this year Denver Public Schools conducted as audit of its practices and discovered systemic inequalities and institutional racism throughout the school system; many consumers of social media will remember the "super racist" Red Cross pool poster from earlier this year.

One of the most troubling instances of contemporary racism in Colorado, however, comes from one of its more "progressive" achievements: the legalization of marijuana. As Amanda Chicago Lewis of BuzzFeed reported in May:

Black and Latino adolescents in Colorado are being arrested for marijuana offenses at more disproportionate rates than they were before the state legalized recreational use of the drug, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The report, released in March, found a striking racial disparity in how adolescents aged 10–17 are being arrested: White juvenile marijuana arrests decreased by 8% between 2012 and 2014, while black juvenile arrests increased by 58% and Latino juvenile arrests increased 29%. Colorado voters passed an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012 — the year is used in the report to represent pre-legalization. The first full year that the state’s 21-and-older recreational marijuana market was operational was 2014.

As NPR's Ben Markus reports, many of those arrests have been "complaint driven." Lewis's reporting elsewhere has captured the startling hypocrisy of marijuana legalization. Whereas the "War on Drugs" resulted in the over-incarceration of Black and Latino men for non-violent drug offenses, the legal marijuana industry is exploding to the benefit of early-adopter entrepreneurs, most of whom are White. There is extensive documentation of racial disparities in criminalizing the sale and possession of marijuana, and that criminalization is having the effect of locking non-White populations out of a growing industry. As more states pursue the legalization of marijuana, it becomes less and less important whether some Americans have moral objections to decriminalization, which is a valid political perspective. What becomes more important, however, is to ensure both that the downstream of effects of legalization do not lead to unjust enforcement, and that an entirely new corner of the private sector is not erected on a foundation of racial exclusion. Early indications from Colorado do not bode well for either predicament.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.