Racial Profiling in the War on Drugs: Common Sense or Institutional Racism?

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            There is no doubt that racial profiling is evident in the law enforcement agencies and criminal justice systems in the United States. For example, an individual from a minority race or ethnic community is more likely to be stopped on the highway while driving not because he is a crime suspect but because of his race. These incidences have become a major cause of antagonism between the law enforcement agents and the targeted societies. The root of this racial profiling is believed to have been the counter-drugs attempts in 1980s where the minority races especially African -Americans and Latino Americans were targeted by anti drug laws.

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However, it is important to note that this racial profiling in the war on drugs is not only found in the United States but also in other parts of the world. In many countries around the world, individuals from the minority races have been falsely accused and incarcerated in the name of war on drugs. Moreover, anti drugs laws around the world have been found to target mainly psychoactive substances that are more common among the minority races while drugs that are common among the dominant races remain legal. Drug problems affecting the dominant races are also treated as health problems while similar problems in the minority races are handled by the criminal justice systems.

This paper discusses why racial profiling in the war on drugs does not work and has led to institutional racisms where the criminal justice systems have disproportionately targeted the individuals from the minority races.

Racial Profiling

Since the war on drugs was introduced by Reagan administration in the 1980s, the criminal justice systems have changed significantly. The Drug Enforcement Agencies and other law enforcement agencies started developing profiles on how illegal drugs circulated in the United States. Initially, this profiling was based on specific characteristics of individuals involved in illegal drug crimes such as nervousness when approached by the police, amount of cash and inconsistent stories about the trip. However, there is no doubt that race became the most important method of characterizing drug offenders leading to racial profiling in the war against drugs. Legislations related to war on drugs that followed were all targeted on drug crimes committed by members on the minority races. Moreover, the Drug Enforcement Agency concluded that the drug markets in the United States were controlled by African Americans and Latino Americans creating the misconception that all members of these minority races are drug crime suspects. These racial profiles escalated after a short time and extended to other crimes. The result has been over representation of African Americans and Latino Americans in the criminal justice systems due to the self fulfilling prophecy and increased racial discrimination in the criminal justice systems (Reeves & Campbell, 1994).

Although it is a fact that drug use across the racial divide is not consistent and some races have been found to abuse illegal drugs more than other races, the punitive anti drug laws that have existed in the United States for over three decades are based on racial prejudice where people of color are presumed to be drug abuser by the law enforcers. This does not make sense and amounts to racial discrimination in the criminal justice systems. These laws have in no doubt deepened the racial divide in the United States. The African Americans and Latino Americans have suffered most due to the discriminative application of anti drugs law. For this reason, the war on drug laws have been considered by many people opposed to institutional racial discrimination as the new Jim Crow laws (DPA, 2010).

 For example, the African Americans consist of up to thirty eight percent of people arrested for drug related crimes in the United States and about sixty percent of all drug related conviction. This is disproportionate when it is compared to the percentage population of African Americans in the country, about twelve percent, and the percentage number of drug users in African American population which is about thirteen percent. Statistics indicate the same trend when the Latino Americans are considered (Austin & Irwin, 2001).  The high rate at which Latino Americans and African Americans are being arrested and incarcerated for drug related crimes is not an indication of that drug use among these minority groups is bigger problem compared to other races but is a reflection of the discrimination focus of anti drug laws on some minority races. The law enforcements have concentrated on fighting drugs in the inner parts of major cities where African Americans and Latino Americans are more likely to be concentrated and drug dealing are in the open air and rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts is very rare (DPA, 2010).

The ineffectiveness of war on drugs targeting specific racial groups and racial profiling has been made worse by the over emphases on incarceration as the primary method of punishing the offenders. This over reliance on imprisonment has resulted into over two million Americans being incarcerated in the correction facilities across the United States. When compared to other nations in the world, the United States has been found to incarcerate its citizens more than any other nation. The war on drug is to blame for the overwhelming number of prisoners in the United States correctional facilities. Moreover, the African Americans and Latino Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice systems and correctional facilities in America as a consequence of discriminative anti drugs laws. The disparities in the criminal arrests, convictions and sentencing of offenders are very obvious in the war on drugs and cannot be compared to any other facet of the criminal justice systems (DPA, 2001).

Following arrest, people of color suspected of drug related crimes are subjected to more harsh treatment by the law enforcers and criminal justice systems compared to the whites. A well known example of this harsh treatment is the discriminative sentencing of individuals found in possession of crack cocaine compared to those convicted with possession of powdered cocaine. Although both forms have the same active ingredients and effects upon abuse, the crack form is more common among the marginalized people of color due to less expensive quantities in which is available. On the other hand, the powdered form is marketed in larger and more expensive quantities and is common among the dominant race. It has been found that over ninety percent of people convicted with possession of crack cocaine are Africans Americans while a relatively high number of whites have been convicted with possession of powdered cocaine. Moreover, both the scientists and law enforcement agencies have declared that powdered cocaine and crack cocaine cannot rationally be distinguished suggesting that separate treatment of the two forms of cocaine is prompted by racial biasness rather than common sense. However, racial discrimination in the war on drugs is evident in the conviction and sentencing of individuals convicted of possessing these forms of cocaine. For example, an individual convicted of possessing five grams of cocaine and another possessing half a kilogram of powdered cocaine are subjected to the same mandatory minimum sentence by the federal courts. Since the enactment of these mandatory sentencing in the mid 1980s, the average sentence in drug related convictions has increased tremendously among the African Americans and Latino Americans when compared to the whites (Harris, 1999).

Racial discrimination and profiling that has permeated the war on drugs in the justice systems has been associated with the historical injustices that have been done against minority races in the United States. Rather than racial profiling on war on drugs reducing drug trafficking and abuse in the United States, it has been used to justify the penal systems that has propagated racial discrimination in the administration of justice. The result of this inequality is evident in the society where the marginalized minority societies who are targeted by these laws continue to be disadvantaged politically and economically. Almost half a century after formal discrimination based on race were abolished in the United States, social structures in the society indicates that the minority races are still politically and economically marginalized. The unequal applications of the law and anti drugs laws that target these particular groups have played an important role in extending this social divide. A large number of African Americans and Latino Americans have been disenfranchised because of being convicted due to racial profiling (DPA, 2001).

Racial profiling has created a self perpetuating unequal treatment of African Americans and Latinos in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. After decades of racial profiling on drug related laws, there is a perception in the United States including the criminal justice systems that majority of the people of color commit offences and majority of the crimes are committed by individuals from minority races. Although empirical studies indicate that this is not true, the perceptions have resulted into unequal attention of the criminal justice systems on the minority races (Amnesty International, 2004). For example, racial profiling has resulted into a higher number of African Americans or Latino American drivers being stopped by the police on the highway. These increases the likelihood of the individual being convicted for minor traffic offences which could have gone unnoticed if he was not stopped due to racial profiling.  Consequently, this has resulted into an unacceptable disparity arrests among Latino Americans and African American. Disproportional arrests have prompted false perceptions on the part of the prosecutor and the judge which skews their decision against people of color leading disproportionate incarcerations. The result has been an increased number of people of color in the criminal justice systems which has reinforced that perceptions and believes that the minority races commit more crimes. This has also been used to justify racial profiling and anti drug laws that target African Americans and Latinos (CSDP, 2010).

Other than reinforcing perceptions that members of the minority races are criminals, which is not true, racial profiling has resulted into the self fulfilling prophecy. The high number of individuals from African Americans and Latino community being found in possession or using illegal drugs is as a result of racial profiling. Racial profiling has in no doubt turned many young African Americans and Latinos into drug abusers and traffickers. Moreover, law enforcers search for illegal drugs among members of these races resulting into large number of them being arrested for illegal drugs possession. On the other hand, the whites are less likely to be stopped on the highway and searched making it easier for them to escape with similar offences which African Americans and Latinos are arrested for committing (Weitzer & Tuch, 2006).

These vicious aspects of the war on drugs have had far reaching effects on the society. It has evolved to be one of the major symbolic societal problems in the United States. The perceptions of people of color as criminals which is deeply rooted on the racial profiling in the war on drugs has resulted into a large number of innocent individuals being convicted and incarcerated in American criminal justice systems. Basing justice on the color of the skin or race has corroded the integrity and legitimacy of the justice systems. The resultant detestation between the law enforcement agencies and the people of color has resulted into lack of cooperation between them in the maintenance of law and order. The retaliation of the marginalized group due to lack of justice has also emanated into a self fulfilling prophecy and emergency of criminal gangs (Reiman, 1998).

Despite tangible evidence of the impact of racial profiling, including statistics from the law enforcement agents themselves on biased police stops and searches, the criminal justice systems have declined to accept the realities of this inequity. Some officials however accept that racial profiling exists in the system while others have opposed these claims.  It is not surprising to note that some administrators in the justice system have defended profiling based on race terming it as a rational action by the police (Currie, 1998).

As states earlier, racial profiling in the war against drugs and misconceptions on blacks and Latinos as criminals has extended the racial injustices that have been evidence throughout the history of the United States. The practice of using the skin color as an evidence of being crime suspects has resulted into the common saying in the United States, Driving While Black or Brown, DWB (Gross &Barnes, 2002). This racial prejudice is uncalled for especially when it is promoted by the criminal justice systems, the system that is expected to administer justice and ensure all people are treated equally. There is no doubt that this is a form of institutional racism that followed the abolishment of formal racism in the civil right era. Today, almost one and half million African American men have been disenfranchised after being released from prison and thus losing their political powers permanently. Reports indicate that the rate of disentrancement among the African Americans is up to seven times the average rate in the total population. With the increased number of African Americans and Latinos being incarcerated due to racial profiling in the war on drugs, there is no doubt that the minority races are becoming less empowered. Does this mean that we are going back to the era when the minority races had no right to exercise their constitutional duties such as voting?

Although racial profiling in the war on drugs has continuously been defended by some individuals, it has done more injustices to the people of color compared to the overall benefits in the fight against drugs. To determine whether the approach makes any sense or it promotes institutional racism and injustices, it is important to look at both long term and short term benefits and shortcoming. Although studies indicates that the percentage of individuals found to posses illegal drugs after police search is higher among African American and Latinos compared to the whites, this is not enough justification for racial profiling (Welch, 2007).


There is a need for the United States government to devise other means of dealing with illegal drugs in the society and eliminate the institutional racisms in the name of racial profiling. For example, drug treatment and training programs have been effected in the middle class neighborhoods which are predominantly white residence. On the other hand, these services are not available in the marginalized areas dominated by African Americans and Latinos. Rather than focusing on arresting, convicting and incarcerating drug users because they are blacks or Latinos, the law enforcers need to focus on providing these programs to areas where there are more needed. Over the last two and half decades, there is no doubt that the availability of illegal drugs has been an important issue in the poor neighborhoods. However, the response of the authorities and policy makers leaves many questions than answers. Instead of providing support services to reduce drug abuse in these areas, the authorities and policy makers have promoted racial profiling and built more prisons for these needy citizens.


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Racial Profiling in the War on Drugs: Common Sense or Institutional Racism?. (2016, Nov 12). Retrieved from


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