Racial Profiling in the War on Drugs

Table of Content


The United States has a history of racial profiling of criminal activities, mostly the war against drug and substances abuse and trafficking. Commentators have suggested that the war on drugs has clear racism overtones. In a 1986 study, it was observed that an African American was six times more likely to go to jail than a white American was (Walker et al, 2006). By 1996, a black American was 22 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than a white American was. This clearly shows that racial profiling was on the rise. Because of the on-going war against drug, racial profiling has become continuous with the war.

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A high proportion of American prison inmates were convicted of drug-related offenses. The trend is expected to continue as the practice of racial profiling of drug crimes becomes more entrenched in the law enforcement agencies. While surveys have shown equitable use of drugs among the races in the United States, the number of arrests, convictions, and incarceration shows rampant racial discrepancies. Out of five blacks sent to prison are on drug charges. In the contrary, only 15% of drug users are blacks. This pattern of racial profiling is spread across all U.S. states. If only 15% of blacks are, drug users in the U.S.; why then is the proportion of African Americans higher in prison for drug-related offenses? Because of racial profiling in drug war, fewer achievements have been attained in combating drug-related crimes (Provine, 2007). Instead, racial profiling has created more racial division, disparities, and tensions.

            There is a belief among police officers that colored communities are more involved in drug use and trafficking than the whites are. This is the case despite the fact that drug crimes are consistent across racial lines. This trend has resulted in racial injustices as far as drug war in concerned. There is need for policy reforms on drug war to end the bias and injustices faced by colored people from the law enforcement agencies (Holbert et al, 2004). Attention should be drawn to the disproportionate impacts of these racial profiling practices on people of color. There is approximately 12.5% African Americans in the U.S. population by proportion and they account for about 13% of drug users in the country. In the contrary, the African Americans constitute 38% of all drug-related arrests made in the U.S. Almost 60% of all U.S. citizens convicted of drug offenses are African American (Heather, 2010). Apart from the blacks, the other ethnic minority targeted by drug war are the Latinos. The criminal justice system also treats the arrested suspects more harshly compared to the treatment meted on offenders of the white race. There are also ethnic and racial disparities in the sentencing of convicted criminals by the criminal justice system.

            Racial profiling implies to the use of skin color as an incriminating factor for drug crimes. The color of the skin is used as the basis of suspicion by law enforcement agencies and agents. These racial disparities on drug war (Arrests and convictions) have far-reaching effects on colored individuals and families as well. More African American children and families have a higher probability of a parent or a family member being incarcerated than white children and families. Most affected in these families are the pregnant women of color. Besides losing their husbands to drug war by the law enforcers, the colored women are also more likely to be reported for pre-natal drug use. In most cases, these women are tested for drug use without their consent (Flagnan et al, 1998). The women are then prosecuted for exposing the unborn child to an illegal substance. The colored women’s Forth Amendment rights of privacy are violated in the process by both medical and law enforcement agencies. Studies show that more black or Latino women are arrested for drug offenses than white women.

The consideration of race, ethnicity, or origins by law enforcement agencies and officers in deciding on how to deal with a crime is called racial profiling. In police drug wars, the colored people are always profiled as more likely to commit a drug-related offense than whites are. The level of poverty in black neighborhood makes them an obvious target by police officers for drug-related criminal intent. Similarly, police officers view rich African Americans who live in poor neighborhoods as potential drug dealers. African Americans are therefore mostly considered to be possible drug offenders even before they are caught in any such offenses. Statistics have shown that African Americans are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than whites Americans are. Unwarranted searches, police stops, and questioning in African American, Hispanic and other minority homes based on ethnicity and race is the most common form of racial profiling on drug wars (Bumgame, 2004). Cars driven by black people are more likely to be stopped and searched than those driven by whites.

Should Police Practice Racial Profiling?

            Debate has been raging whether police officers should apply racial profiling while fighting drug crimes. The trend should be stopped since it is inherently racist. This is mainly because it targets blacks and other minorities. The public have also lost confidence and faith in the law enforcers. The harsh and aggressive manner in which the police carry out the arrests and searches is quite inhuman (Welch, 2003). The public develops fear due to intimidation by the officers. The public, especially the minorities lose confidence in the law enforcement agencies. The practice is also a violation of human rights since the privacy of Americans of minority descent is infringed. While the proponents of profiling argue it has reduced crime rates in the U.S., they feel some officers are overzealous and exceed their mandates. The critics of profiling argue that police have broad discretion to stop motorists on the Highway but the discretion should not extend outside highways. Outside highways, the officers should have reasonable grounds to stop, search, and arrests suspects of whatever ethnicity or race. The law courts have also reiterated that belonging to a certain race or loitering in a given neighborhood is not enough evidence to incriminate a person.

            Statistics also show that police are stop, search, and arrest more African American drivers than white Americans. This is despite the fact that African Americans only constitute less than 15% of motorists on American roads. The odds of this disparity occurring is very low and the police officers must be doing it deliberately. Profiling should target tendency to criminality and not on race, origin, or ethnicity. The law enforcement agencies should therefore stop being stereotypes and profile people on tendency to criminality and not based on race or ethnic group. Once the police target a particular race of ethnic group, it is the members of that group that will be arrested. The rush to keep drug criminals out of city streets has led intensified racial profiling by police officers. Consequently, many innocent citizens have been arrested based on racial profiling. Inconveniences resulting from such wrongful arrests destabilize and interrupt their lives the American people (Walker, 1997).

There have been calls from critics of profiling for legislation to curb the act among police officers. Profiling data and statistics should be availed so that the public is informed on the criteria used in drug profiling. These regulations should allow for studies on traffic violations by officers during traffic stops, checks, and arrest for drug crimes (Knowles et al, 2001). Defenders of profiling however argue that more African Americans are stopped and arrested for drug offenses simply because they are guilty of the offenses. To them this is a sign of good work by the police. The defenders of profiling argue that the high arrest and conviction rate for blacks indicate the disproportionately commit more drug crimes.

To end this disproportionate racial profiling of drug offenders, the law enforcers need to be trained and proper discipline instilled in them. The officers must be drilled on what amounts to reasonable grounds of arrests, stops, searches, and frisks. The officers must be trained that no citizen should be approached based on race, ethnic, or socioeconomic status. Arrests or searches made on such basis are considered unlawful. Racial profiling drug criminals withdraw the attention of law enforcing agencies from the other section of the community. This ignored section takes the advantage and indulge in the same drug crimes.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) developed a profile of drug distribution networks by studying the movements of drugs from the countries of origin into the U.S. through the boarders. Some of the characteristics the police were trained to look out for included nervousness, an abundance of cash, lack of luggage for long trips, and inconsistent passenger and driver stories about such things as the destination, purpose of the trip, and the names of fellow passengers. Soon the race factor cropped in. The DEA considered certain drug markets to be under the control of specific races or ethnic groups. The most suspected groups were Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans, and Mexicans. On learning the profiling methods of the DEA, The drug lords changed their tactics and it became more difficult to arrest them. Racial profiling thus evolved without any clear documentation about its basis. While civil right activists had compelling anecdotes against racial profiling, they had no grounds to question other arrests such as traffic-related ones. The result of racial profiling has been lack of support from the citizens for community policing programs. Officers who are dispirited by this act have slowed their behavior. Reduced ticketing and racial disparities in arrests indicates this (Gray, 2001).

            The way forward is to develop a profiling system that does not follow racial or ethnic lines. There is need to distinguish between strategic and tactical profiling. A strategic profiling is one that identifies suspects and offenders by use of intelligence and not prejudice or predisposition. Tactical profiling entails erecting roadblocks and organizing operations and searches at drug transit or depot points. Such points may be airstrips, airports, or seaports. Other such points are old warehouses, deserted buildings, or factories. That drug dealers are trained to blend in the society in disguise makes racial profiling ineffective in winning the war on drugs. The drug dealers are well aware of the racial or ethnic profiling of drug war. The drug barons have since developed and invented new means of transporting and distributing their substances. The randomness of inspections, stops, and searches should be increased instead of targeting a particular race or ethnic group (Brunson, 2007).

Campaigns against Racial Profiling On Drug War

The campaigns against racial profiling in drug war have led to many officers and other government officials and departments dropping the practice. Various jurisdiction areas have also prohibited it as it is against federal laws. Racial profiling has been described as the missing link in the drug war in the U.S. Researches done in 1998 by Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy (PLNDP) and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The studies showed that it was more productive and cost-effective compared to the criminalizing policies of the war on drugs. The studies also showed that drug addicts are not primarily members of the minority racial or ethnic groups. Instead, the study showed that drug use and addiction reaches the whole cross- section of the society, with affluent, educated Caucasians being the most likely substance abusers. The study also showed than more than 60% adult users of heroin were white Americans while 77% of marijuana users were white males. The trend was found to be similar among youth users of drugs.

 ‘The Public and War on Drugs’ opinion of 3/11/1998 by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) also had similar results with the above study. It also observed that most Americans did not believe the war on drugs was succeeding. Unfortunately, they did not want to abandon the criminalizing racial profiling approach by the law enforcement agencies (Levy, 2001). According to the report, many Americans did not approve of the continued funding of the drug war. This was because of the ineffectiveness of the criminalizing approach adopted by the law enforcement agencies. The government was also not playing the role of informing the public on the progress of the drug war. The public only obtained information from the media, more so the television.

Civil, Human Rights and Racial Profiling

            Whenever a person is discriminated by a law enforcement officer based on race, sex, religion, or previous condition of servitude, then the issues of civil and human rights arise. The U.S. criminal laws, though neutral on their own, are enforced in an impartial manner (Baum, 1997). The war on drug is one area that has experienced the worst form of this bias. The criminal injustices on suspected black offenders have continued to derail the progress made by civil and human rights movements over the years. Disproportionate targeting by police officers has victimized blacks, Hispanic, and other minority groups, especially on drug war. Racially skewed arrests, convictions, and plea-bargaining decisions by prosecutors have grossly discriminated the minority races. Moreover, discrimination by judges and their failures to address the glaring inequities in arrests also infringe on the civil and human rights of minorities.


            Racial profiling has been entrenched in the U.S. justice system for quite sometime. Racial profiling is a practice that targets a particular race or ethnic group in the fight against crimes. This has led to many disparities in police stops, searches, arrests, convictions, and sentencing by judges. There is a belief inherent in law enforcement agencies and officer that people of color are more likely to commit crimes than the Caucasians. Studies and researches have shown a consistency in the disparities in arrests and convictions. Despite the fact that Americans of all races are equally likely to be involved in drug use, possession, distribution, and trafficking, more blacks and Hispanics are arrested than white Americans. The disparities extend to the courts where both the prosecutors and judges fail to notice and address the inequities in the arrest made. The result of racial profiling is disparities in the proportion of minority races and ethnic groups in the United States of American prisons. Despite the fact that blacks only account for 12% of U.S. population, they are 37% of the U.S. prisons. Racial profiling has resulted in infringement of civil and human rights of minority Americans. Arrests, frisks, and stops are made by police officers without any reasonable cause to suspect a person. The appearance of the skin as black or brown is the first criterion of profiling drug offenders in the U.S.


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Racial Profiling in the War on Drugs. (2016, Nov 12). Retrieved from


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