The Race Problem Behind America’s Drug Arrests

The War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of many people while not doing much to stop the flow of drugs throughout the country. That’s because it has almost uniformly focused on African American and Hispanic American people, with a vast majority of arrests and convictions come these races.

This higher arrest rate occurs even though neither race abuses drugs at much higher rates than any other race. As a result, understanding this situation can be complicated, mainly since more elements are at play than it may seem. Simply claiming that the system is “racist” does little to address the issue.

Races Use Drugs at Different Rates

Over the years, statisticians have tracked the rates that races use and abuse drugs in America. These rates have changed over the years but typically stay at a similar level for most of the races. The findings here are interesting and may buck many clichés. The list will showcase the race and their rate of use, starting with the highest and going down to the lowest:

  • Hispanic Americans – 24.1 percent
  • Caucasian Americans – 24 percent
  • Native Americans – 23.5 percent
  • African-Americans – 20.1 percent
  • Multiracial – 19.6 percent
  • Asian Americans – 12.4 percent

Though there is a substantial disparity between the top and bottom abuse rates, it is startling to see how similar usage is throughout most races. Between Hispanic and Multiracial people, there is less than a five percent difference. If all things remained equal, the obvious result would be uniform arrest and incarceration rate between the races. Unfortunately, all things are not equal.

Arrest Rates are Also Much Different

Although Caucasian Americans abuse drugs at a similar rate to Hispanic and African Americans, the last two races are arrested far more for drug offenses. Studies have shown that 80 percent of people in federal prison for drug-related crimes are African or Hispanic American. And in state prisons, around 60 percent of the drug offenses are made up of these two races.

Although arrest records are not as transparent and easy to track, it’s clear that the majority of people arrested for drug crimes are African and Hispanic American. When combined, their usage rates are 44.2 percent – and yet, up to 80 percent of all those in prison for drug crimes come from these races. And sentencing often plays a very substantial part in this element of the drug war.

For example, another study found that prosecutors were about twice as likely to ask for a mandatory minimum sentence for African American people as they were Caucasian people who committed a similar crime. A mandatory minimum sentence limits the judge’s options and makes it harder for them to give a defendant probation or a lighter punishment. The rates were staggering – around 38 percent of those who got these sentences were Hispanic American, and 31 percent were African American.

Why Race Affects Arrests

Studies have long examined this problem and have concluded that many law enforcement officials still hold racial biases. They believe that African and Hispanic American people are more “aggressive” and “violent” and more likely to commit crimes. This problem seems to occur very heavily at the police level, such as when one race arrests another.

As a result, some have stated that “same race” policing may be a good approach. This idea posits that it would be best to send African American police to manage situations with African Americans and vice versa with other races. This might decrease the arrest records in many cases but could only reinforce long-held racial biases. And this is unlikely to change things for the better in the long-term.

Income Disparity Cannot Be Ignored

And the influence of class and income levels must be examined. Studies have found that the opioid epidemic has been centered more heavily in low-income Caucasian areas than any other. However, even low-income African and Hispanic Americans have experienced the impact of this crisis. And income is likely a huge part of general drug arrest creates, as well as substance abuse rates.

For example, the average Hispanic American income is around $28,000, while the average African American income is $31,000. Compare that to the average Caucasian American income of $44,000. The median income rates are even more telling: $38,000 for Hispanic Americans, $41,000 for African Americans, and $62,000 for Caucasian Americans.

This disparity could influence struggling Hispanic and African Americans to sell drugs, rather than stay stuck in poverty. That doesn’t mean low-income Caucasian people don’t also sell drugs. But as mentioned above, they are less likely to get arrested. And then, Hispanic and African American individuals are more likely to get arrested, creating a cycle that only reinforces negative stereotypes. This situation is very complicated and requires real work to change.

Author: Patrick Bailey