• Richie Crowley

Alcohol: A Tool of Systemic Oppression

Lurking behind underfunded education, peering through rows of income inequality and over-policing, is alcohol.


Before a community can have a high density of alcohol outlets, those seeking liquor licenses must be awarded them from their state or local municipality, most commonly some sort of Alcohol Beverage Control board. Communities with high densities of alcohol outlets are the result of permissive decisions made by state or municipal officials. Decisions made by state or municipal officials are decisions of the system.


The decision to populate certain communities with high densities of alcohol outlets is a systemic decision.


“Welcome to America, where profits are prioritized over the protection of life.”

These outlets are not your neighborhood Saturday lemonade stand, they dangerously encourage escapism and distribute oppression, not $.25 cups of poorly stirred Countrytime.


Alcohol licenses are sought after because of the high-profit margins of alcohol. As a culture, the dangers of alcohol have continued to be silenced at the interest of income. Welcome to America, where profits are prioritized over the protection of life.


Beyond the dangers that an individual invites onto themselves by consuming alcohol, the menu of harmful outcomes related to alcohol includes community oppression.


Greater demand for alcohol leads to the opening of a greater number of alcohol outlets. These outlets will cluster where consumer activity is greatest, and the number of outlets will proliferate until the demand is met. Economics 101, supply and demand.


But, one can’t be fooled into thinking it’s that clear.


Alcohol is a money-maker, so surely owners of alcohol outlets will aim to maximize profits by locating their outlet in areas where rent is low.


It’s true. Greater numbers of outlets will tend to open in areas where rents are low, resulting in higher concentrations of outlets in low-income areas, exposing the nearby populations to the risks associated with these drinking places.


Low-income isn’t a segregating classification, but Blacks do face higher densities of liquor stores than do Whites. A 2000 analysis found that liquor stores are disproportionately located in predominantly Black census tracts.

This is where alcohol becomes a tool of oppression.


The over-concentration of alcohol outlets exposes Black communities to all the negative consequences of alcohol. There are significant and substantive relationships between outlet densities, alcohol-related traffic crashes, violence, and crime.


A systemic tool of oppression.


The decision to award liquor licenses to an outlet that will locate itself in a low-income community to meet demand and maximize profits is an intentional act controlled by state and local institutions. When that alcohol outlet is known to increase harm to the community and it still created, that is informed oppression. When the only method of obtaining this license is through a state-controlled board it becomes systemic oppression.


The location of an alcohol outlet is only the beginning.


Low-income communities face systemic racism, over-policing, police brutality, greater health risks, and are unable to rely on underfunded education systems to equip their populations with tools to cope with these inequities.


Enter the all too convenient alcohol.


Alcohol depresses the central nervous system for a temporary relaxation of the consumer, masking it’s numbing and escapist properties. Disenfranchised from upward mobility, and exhausted from the constant struggle to overcome oppression, agents marketed as sips of stress relief are indulged.


Oppressed individuals of low-income communities are overly exposed to alcohol access.


A dangerous opportunity.


Dangerous and wrong.


For a community to be systemically oppressed, underfunded with education and opportunity, and have an overabundance of a substance that is the third leading cause of preventable death is wrong.


Would you like your oppression on or off the rocks?


In 1855, abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass waived off the bartender and chose water.


Recognizing that slave masters carefully controlled the slaves’ access to Alcohol, Douglass found weekend and holiday breaks from normally encouraged abstinence to be controlled promotion of drunkenness as a way to keep the slave in “a state of perpetual stupidity” and “disgust the slave with his freedom.” Douglass further noted how the slave master’s promotion of drunkenness reduced the risk of slave rebellions.


When a slave was drunk, the slaveholder had no fear that he would plan an insurrection; no fear that he would escape to the north. It was the sober, thinking slave who was dangerous, and needed the vigilance of his master to keep him a slave.” — Frederick Douglass, 1855

Sobriety became a stairway to freedom.


A century later, Malcolm X acknowledged alcohol as a tool of African American oppression:


“Almost everyone in Harlem needed some kind of hustle to survive, and needed to stay high in some way to forget what they had to do to survive.” — Malcolm X

Like Douglass, Malcolm X saw alcohol as an agent that numbed the pain of cultural oppression and suppressed the potential for political protest and economic self-determination.


To fail to address systemic racism or provide an equitable education only to then, in great density, tempt communities with an agent known to allow escapism, is strategic oppression. It’s a strategic and cowardly suppression of communities that for decades have been gaslighted with echos of “You didn’t have to drink it”, equivalent to a modern-day “Just say no” campaign.


Both utterly incorrect.


Alcohol is an addictive agent of escape that the medical community at large acknowledges as an intoxicating, addictive, toxic, carcinogenic drug, and not a good choice as a therapeutic agent. A 2016 Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality, found no health protections at low intake levels, and collectively concluded that the public needs to be informed that drinking alcohol is very unlikely to improve their health.


State and municipal officials are empowered with a trust they will uplift, not oppress their communities. Even science confirms there is no need to populate low-income communities with alcohol outlets, yet an ignorant American truth is that profits will be prioritized over life.


By now, it’s likely, that a reader would excuse themselves from contributing to any oppression but “I don’t purchase alcohol from outlets in low-income areas” is an incorrect dismissal.


The spirits, beer, cider, and wine purchased outside of low-income communities is also sold in low-income communities. A portion of the money from each purchase travels back upstream to fund the distribution channels and creators of the very same alcohol that continues populate outlets of low-income communities. More, these funds contribute to an alcohol industry that spends a collective $2.2 Billion on traditional media advertising to convince us that alcohol can’t be that bad.


Worse, white Americans drink more alcohol than other populations.


Each dollar spent contributes to oppression.


Alcohol is a tool of oppression and low-income communities are too exposed to alcohol. When the distribution of alcohol outlets is controlled by officials, who are educated on the dangers, yet continue to grant licenses to outlets in low-income communities, it then becomes yet another tool of systemic oppression.


Like so many aspects of society, only now are we beginning to understand how oppression is not an attitude but a product of systemic decisions and how complicit we might be.


Richie. Human.


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