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Do white people sell or use drugs at lower rates than people of color?

No. Numerous studies across nearly four decades have shown that white people use and sell drugs at rates equal to or surpassing Black and brown people.

What explains racial disparities in drug policing?

Many factors are at play. Here are some that stand out:

The origins of drug prohibition: As federal Judge Frederic Block writes, drug prohibition itself has racist origins. The first anti-drug law in the United States was an anti-opium ordinance implemented in San Francisco in 1875. Opium smoking was associated with Chinese immigrants, who were discriminated against both institutionally and culturally. Congress passed the first federal anti-drug law in 1909: the Anti-Opium Act. Like the San Francisco ordinance, it played off of fears of Chinese immigrants by banning the smoking of opium, but not other forms of opiate consumption that were at the time widely used in white communities. The same racism was central to the prohibition of cocaine, based on associations of the drug with Black people, and marijuana, which was prohibited amidst racist rhetoric about Mexicans.

The historical over-policing of Black communities: Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explains:

[P]oor people, particularly poor folks of color, are targeted by our criminal justice system, arrested for extremely minor offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class communities or on college campuses but go largely ignored—targeted, arrested or cited, and then saddled with fines and fees that are nearly impossible for them to pay back. Then warrants are issued for their arrest, for failure to appear in court or to pay back their fees or fines in a timely manner, leading them into a system from which they have little hope of ever truly escaping.

And, you know, we can look back in history and see this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. Slavery by Another Name is an important book that I think all Americans should read, about how, following the end of slavery, a new system of racial and social control was born, known as “convict leasing.” You know, after the end of slavery, African-American men were arrested in mass, and they were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering, standing around, vagrancy or the equivalent of jaywalking—arrested and then sent to prison and then leased to plantations. And the idea was they were supposed to earn their freedom, but they could never pay back the plantation owners or the corporations the costs of their clothing and shelter, and so they were effectively re-enslaved, you know, sometimes for the rest of their lives. And today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped yet again in a criminal justice system, you know, which are treating them like commodities and like people who are easily disposable.

The use of drug prohibition as a means to achieve other state policy goals, namely social control and the maintenance of the status quo: President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum something shockingly honest about why Nixon pursued an aggressive “war on drugs.”

You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did

Noam Chomsky has also talked about the war on drugs as a means of social control.

And finally, the self-interest of police departments that seek resources and power: In his 2015 book Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari offers a remarkable anecdote from former New York City police officer Matthew Fogg. Here’s how Hari tells it:

Matthew Fogg is one of the most decorated police officers in the United States, responsible for tracking down more than three hundred of the most-wanted felons in the country—from murderers to rapists to child molesters. But he was bewildered as to why his force only ever goes to black neighborhoods to bust people for drugs. He went to see his boss to suggest they start mounting similar raids in white neighborhoods.

He explained that his superior officer told him: “Fogg, you know you’re right they are using drugs there [but] you know what? If we go out and we start targeting those individuals, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians, they know all of the big folks in government. If we start targeting them, and their children, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to get a phone call and they’re going to shut us down. You know that, Fogg? You know what’s going to happen? There goes your overtime. There’s the money that you’re making. So let’s just go after the weakest link. Let’s go after those who can’t afford the attorneys, those who we can lock up.”

Are Boston drug arrests uniquely racially disparate?

No. Drug arrest figures nationwide show racially disparate treatment.

Do other racial disparities exist in the system?

Yes. Racial disparities are present at every stage of the system:

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.