Binge Drinking in Black and White

By Taylor Shook

Binge drinking among Denison students occurs at a whopping rate of thirty percent. The easy explanation, and one frequently given among students on the Hill, is this: it’s rural Ohio, what else is there to do, but get wasted? But that doesn’t explain why only one in three students chooses to take part in binge drinking. Why do some students binge drink, and others don’t? Race may be the answer.

To answer this question, I draw on data from 540 responses to a survey sent to students in February 2018. I focus on self-reported binge-drinking in the last week. Of course, Greeks drink a lot more than non-Greeks. But what’s interesting too, is that Whites drink at much higher rates than their non-White counterparts (students who answered Hispanic, Black, Asian, or other, when surveyed about their race). In fact, 16% of non-Whites binge drink, while more than twice as many Whites binge drink, at almost 35%. Why?

When holding factors like Greek-affiliation, GPA, gender, athletic participation and Greek affiliation constant, Whites are 10.7% more likely to binge-drink than non-White students.[1] As a White person, I can’t and won’t speak to the experiences of People of Color on campus. But, I suspect that the racial differences in binge drinking behavior can be explained, at least in part, by White privilege. The criminalization of Black bodies by the police state means that they are much more likely to face jail time, or even death, at the hands of law enforcement. With the ever-present threat of state violence, binge-drinking is a much more dangerous activity for non-Whites than Whites. One study found that even with lesser alcohol use, African-Americans are more likely to face legal problems as a consequence, than are Whites.[2]

I turned to my friend, Drew Lewis ‘18, a Black woman from New York City, for insight.  She pointed to a cultural norm against binge-drinking among People of Color as a possible reason for lesser binge drinking.

“For the most part, I don’t think People of Color simply drink to get drunk, as opposed to like their White counterparts, I hear them say ‘it’s my intention to get blacked out’ whereas that’s never really been my intention,” she said.

Plus, non-White students don’t act the way White students do when they’re drunk for fear of legal consequences, she said.

“When White people get drunk they get rowdy and disruptive, but [non-White students] don’t, they don’t do things like rip water fountains out of walls. There’s very little penalty for White people who do things like that, but if a Black or brown body were to behave the same way that White people do when they’re drunk, I think there would be immediate consequences, and I think that plays into White privilege,” she said.

Essentially, this hypothesis frames binge-drinking as a function of risk. Because there are greater real and perceived risks for People of Color, they binge drink less. But when we take a look at the data, White students are only 1.8% more likely to take risks than are non-White students and risk taking is equally linked to binge drinking among Whites and non-Whites.[3] While we might get different results outside of Denison, at least here binge-drinking as a function of risk may not offer an adequate explanation of the racial disparities in binge-drinking behavior.

Another reason Lewis offered for the racial difference in binge drinking is limited access to alcohol for students of Color due to less disposable income and social limitations. While the survey did not directly measure respondents’ economic status, Greek affiliation is a legitimate proxy for both socioeconomic status as well as social access. In other words, students who join Greeks have the economic capacity to pay expensive dues, and fraternities throw virtually all campus parties, with the exception of a few athletic teams.

So, on a campus where White fraternity men control party culture, it should come as no surprise that students of Color, especially ones who aren’t Greek, do not hold access to these social spaces, and thus, binge drink less. Even unaffiliated Whites binge-drink at a rate of 23%, which is twice as much as non-White unaffiliated students, at 11%. This points to the fact that unaffiliated Whites may drink more because of their greater access to Greek party culture than unaffiliated students of Color. Moreover, non-whites in Greek life binge drink at almost the same rates as white Greek affiliates — the rate of unaffiliated non-Whites quadruples once they enter Greek life at Denison.

So, what does this all mean? Is this a call to action for equal opportunity to turn up? Yes and no. Affiliated or not, White or Black, Asian, Hispanic, all students should have equal access to social spaces. Do the disparities in drinking behavior point to campus party culture as a replication of hierarchies like racism and elitism? It’s not out of the question. But not everyone wants to (or should) party like a White frat dude. Pounding Natural Light in a dark, sweaty, cramped apartment isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. So let’s hold more parties in Knobel Hall, Sunset Lounge, and Lamson Lodge. They’re safer, there’s more room to dance, and hell, you can even have a keg (keg stands, anyone?). If you’re White, stop attending parties where you know your friends of Color wouldn’t be welcome. Let’s throw joint parties, like Lambda Chi Alpha did with Outlook this semester. In the words of the Beastie Boys, you gotta fight for your right to party.

Taylor Shook is a kombucha connoisseur, podcast junkie, and okay-ish poet from Hilliard, Ohio. She’s on a quest to make the perfect pesto and watch every documentary, but studies politics in her free time. Tweet her your favorite memes @shook_factor.


1. According to a regression model of survey results, which controls for survey priming, Greek affiliation, Gender, Race, sports participation, class year, and sexual orientation, White students binge-drink at a rate of 10.69% more than their non-White counterparts.

2. Tamika C. Zapolski et. al,. “Less Drinking, Yet More Problems: Understanding African American Drinking and Related Problems.” Psychol Bull, 140 no.1 (2014). The article backs the idea that a cultural norm against binge drinking may play a part in alcohol-related behavior among African-Americans.

3. In a regression model of risk aversion as measured by responses on a Likert scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” on statements like “It is easy for me to accept taking risks” as a function of race, Whites were 1.8% more likely to be risk-takers than non-White students (the difference is not significant).

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