One of the most egregious “War on Drugs” affronts to minorities is the racist practice of “profiling.” Suspects are targeted for detentions and searches based on physical characteristics. If you’re young, single, buying a plane ticket with cash, and going to a “drug city” (like Miami or Los Angeles) you may fit the profile of a drug trafficker, and find yourself detained for a discussion with a law enforcement official, or even a stripsearch. Oh, did we forget to mention that the odds of being stopped increase dramatically if you are African American or Hispanic?
Take the case of African American Willie Jones, a contractor who was flying to Houston from Nashville to buy some shrubbery. He was not only stopped and interviewed, but his cash was confiscated under civil forfeiture laws even though he was never charged with a crime. It took him two years of litigation to get his money back. Would this have happened to a white contractor? Would the white contractor have even been detained?
Take the case of Hispanic restaurant owner Gilberto Leon, driving along Highway 10 through Louisiana toward Houston. He had driven that freeway route twice, and had been stopped both times. The second time, he had $48,000 cash, which he was going to use to purchase a tractor. He had no history of drug involvement. But when he appeared “nervous” after being stopped, and his family’s story about the use of the money didn’t coincide with his, police got suspicious. The trained cocaine-sniffing dog alerted after sniffing the cash. (Studies show that cocaine traces may be in as much as 70% of the money supply.) Again, the cash was taken, though no criminal charges were made. After determining the legal expense involved, Leon settled for the return of 80% of his money to avoid litigation. Believe it or not, under civil forfeiture laws, the burden of proof is on the citizen to prove no involvement in the criminal activity alleged. Would the courts accept this disregard for the 14th Amendment to the Constitution if wealthy whites were having their cash seized without due process?
Take the case of minorities in Volusia County, Florida. A review of over 1000 videotaped stops by sheriff officers trained to follow a script designed to culminate with cash seizures showed that 70% of those stopped were either African American or Hispanic. Take the case of the five young blacks who had $860 confiscated for no discernable reason except that they were young African American males with lots of cash.
Yes, as we will discuss below, minorities are disproportionately involved in drug trafficking. But the Constitution I grew up admiring states that we cannot be judged by the acts a group we belong to. I am a white male. Can I be detained as a suspected KKK murderer just because allKKK members are white males? It is a fundamental principle of our political culture and tradition that people are judged by their individual acts, by the “content of their character.” With profiling, the principle has been discarded and replaced with racism. Sorry Dr. King, but the “War on Drugs” has set back that part of your dream.
Second, the prohibition economy that has grown up around illegal drugs has distorted inner-city neighborhoods where many non-white minorities live. Quick, high amounts of easy money have provided a compelling temptation to young minority males who otherwise might direct their energy and intelligence toward other pursuits. Illegal drug-marts, with the accompanying gang activity and crime, are not situated in affluent customers. The prohibition economy puts that activity in the inner-city neighborhoods, even for more affluent consumers. And the drug of choice at the inner-city drug-marts is the poor man’s cocaine, crack. Penalties for crack dealers are higher than for cocaine powder dealing. Most crack dealers are non-white; many more cocaine powder dealers are white.
But the most troubling racial component of the “War on Drugs” is the fact that minorities are much more likely to pay the criminal penalties resulting from the “war.” It is true that in 1995 about 60% those arrested for drug offenses were whites, and 40% were non-white. But the population of the United States is over three fourths white. Here is a more meaningful statistic: In 1995, 1 of every 57 non-whites was arrested for drug offenses. 1 of every 238 whites was arrested. The evolving trend is even more alarming. In 1990, 1 of every 67 non-whites was arrested, in 1980, 1 of every 114. For whites, in 1990, 1 of every 316 was arrested, and 1 of every 272 in 1980. The “War on Drugs” battlefield is increasingly on minority terrain, and minorities are sustaining proportionately the most casualties. We must ask this divisive question: If whites were being arrested at the rate non-whites are being arrested, would the “War on Drugs” mentality continue to go unquestioned by mainstream America?
President Bill Clinton wants us to heal the racial divisions in this country. Many of us from the baby-boomer generation wanted to believe we had made progress since the 60's toward an equal opportunity, “content of character” society. And we have made some progress. So it came as a shock to many of us when the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials revealed significant and continuing racial tensions. The 90's have shown that there is still a perception of a racist society by many minorities. When we realize that billions of dollars are being spent to engage in a “War on Drugs” policy that is full of racist aspects, we should also realize that we need more than lip service to heal lingering racial divisions in this country.
Minority leaders correctly see the use of drugs as an impediment to prosperity for the minority citizens success has still left behind. So they are reluctant to advocate any form of ending prohibition. But a leader of great courage should step forward and make the point that the distortions created by these overwrought laws against drug use disproportionately harm minorities. Ending drug prohibition will move the drug marts out of the inner-city neighborhoods. It will end the disproportionate detentions, confiscations, and arrests of minorities. It will end the power that organized drug rings now exercise in many minority neighborhoods. Unfortunately, advocating the end of prohibition may be mischaracterized by media people as advocating increased drug use, and offering a stamp of approval for drug abuse. So this hypothetical courageous leader would have to call for an end to the laws, and then call for everyone now free to make the choice, to make the best choice possible to assure success, prosperity and happiness.
There will be a temptation to say “let’s fix the laws, not eliminate them. Let’s come up with more equitable ways to conduct these law enforcement operations in the ‘War on Drugs.’” But it is most likely that limitations on law enforcement will prompt them either to complain that we are tying their hands, and/or they will simply continue “profiling,” and other techniques discussed here, just disguising them better. It was Gandhi who said that the process of enforcing unjust laws creates injustices. The “War on Drugs” situation is a classic demonstration of the principle. There is no way to “fix” the laws, when the laws are unjust to begin with.
Will changing these repressive drug laws end all racial tension in this country? Of course not. But the feeling that racism still exists in the United States is certainly linked to the disproportionate number of minority individuals targeted and incarcerated by the “War on Drugs” laws. By ending the assault on civil rights that the “War on Drugs” encourages, some tension will be eased, and we will remove a major distortion from the day-to-day life in the inner city, allowing more of a chance for true progress toward a racially equitable society.
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