Racial disproportionality in drugs law enforcement in the United States

Since the mid-1980s, the United States has pursued aggressive law enforcement strategies to eradicate the use and distribution of illegal drugs, part of the fierce attack on the national ‘War on Drugs’. The costs and benefits of this ‘war’ continue to be debated. However, what cannot be doubted is that in the pursuit of this supposedly ‘race-neutral’ campaign, America’s ethnic communities, notably black Americans, are being targeted.

Human Rights Watch reports have claimed, relative to their numbers in the general population and among drug offenders, “there is clear evidence to suggest that black Americans are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.” The impact of this unjust negligence has left some racial communities in social, economic and political devastation, and it has also severely ruptured their relationship with the authorities.

There are many reasons for this. Generally speaking, drug law enforcement is much easier to pursue in poor, non-white neighbourhoods, which has led to increasingly higher percentages of non-whites being arrested on such charges. This has then triggered increased hostility, meaning many non-whites are often regarded with high suspicion.

According to the 2006 surveys conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 49% of whites and 42.9% of blacks age twelve or older have used illicit drugs in their lifetimes; 14.5% of whites and 16% of blacks have used them in the past year; and 8.5% of whites and 9.8% of blacks have used them in the past month. At least for the last twenty years, however, whites have engaged in drug offenses at rates higher than blacks. Because the white population is more than six times greater than the black population, the absolute number of white drug offenders is far greater than that of black drug offenders. SAMHSA estimates that 111,774,000 people in the United States age twelve or older have used illicit drugs during their lifetime, of whom 82,587,000 are white and 12,477,000 are black.

If blacks constitute an estimated 13% to 20 % of the total of black and white drug offenders, then technically, they should constitute a roughly similar proportion of the total number of blacks and whites who are arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for drug law violations. However, these things are greatly disproportionate. Human Rights Watch are weary that the their data demonstrates clearly and consistently that blacks have been and remain more likely to be arrested for drug offending behaviour relative to their percentage among drug offenders than whites who engage in the same behaviour. They state that there are many reasons behind the racial disparities in drug arrests, including ‘demographics, police allocation of resources, racial profiling, and the relative ease of making drug arrests in minority urban areas compared to white areas.’

Blacks constitute 43% and whites 55% of persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts, and blacks account for 53.5% and whites for 33.3% of persons admitted to state prison with new convictions for drug offenses. In 2007, blacks accounted for 33.2% of people entering federal prison for drug offenses. A comparison of the rates, relative to population, at which blacks and whites are sent to state prison for drug offenses offers what may be the most compelling evidence of the disparate racial impact of drug control policies: the black rate (256.2 per 100,000 black adults) is ten times greater than the white rate (25.3 per 100,000 white adults).

Human Rights Watch claim that “the racially disproportionate nature of the war on drugs is not just devastating to black Americans. It contradicts faith in the principles of justice and equal protection of the laws that should be the bedrock of any constitutional democracy; it exposes and deepens the racial fault lines that continue to weaken the USA and belies its promise as a land of equal opportunity; and it undermines faith among all races in the fairness and efficacy of the criminal justice system.”

Recent studies on the New York Police Department (NYPD) and their 'Stop and Frisk' are illustrative to how race is inextricably implicated in drug law enforcement, and how it shapes the public perception of and response to the drug problem.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) collected testimonies from New Yorkers who have been stopped by the NYPD and used them to introduce a report that documents the impact of stop and frisk on peoples’ lives, in their attempt to address racial profiling, particularly in New York City.

Their reports found that in 2011 in New York City Young black and Latino men have become the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. In 2011, in New York City, 685,724 people were stopped, 84% of who were Black and Latino residents, despite them only comprising roughly 23% and 29% of New York City’s total population respectively. Shockingly, 90% of young black and Latino men who were stopped were later found innocent. Their research also disproved and contradicted the NYPD’s claims that their stop and frisk policy keeps weapons off the street, as weapons were recovered in only 1% of all stops.

The CCR, Human Rights Watch, and other similar organisations believe that such malpractice has contributed significantly to sentiments of ‘continued mistrust, doubt and fear of police officers in communities of colour that are already scarred by systemic racial profiling and major incidents of police brutality and torture.’ There is therefore, a clear need for accountability, independent oversight and reform in the NYPD’s use of stops and frisks. Moreover, this should then be echoed to national policies, in order to reduce the disparities in America’s criminal justice system.

Debate over whether it is possible to find a less oppressive and less destructive solution to the problem of substance abuse, where race-neutrality will be independently monitored, remains. However, it unavoidable issue of the primary reason for the massive increase of incarcerated minorities is the War on Drugs. If the War on Drugs were terminated, disproportionality would massively decrease, as it is a fundamental factor in keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric.