The [Drug] War on African Americans and Latino/as in San Francisco

On April 12, 2012 the San Francisco Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on “The Human Rights Impact of the War on Drugs in San Francisco.” I attended upon the request of the Commission for a report authored with Mike Males (Research Fellow, CJCJ) for the Center for Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The pews of the hearing in SF City Hall were packed, and the room charged with howls and cheers immediately upon the first testimony of the evening by California NAACP President, Alice Huffman: “I will submit to you that the War on Drugs has destroyed many African American men and women and has not protected us at all.” Notably, the NAACP solidified their fundamental and universal opposition to the drug war in a 2011 resolution.

President Huffman, along with many others offering community and expert testimony declared their agreement with the 2011 Global Commission Report on the War on Drugs. The Report explicitly labels drug war policies utter failures, and calls for an immediate pivot toward legalization and regulation of illicit substances, and for public policy to define and treat drug abuse, addiction, and overdose deaths as public health issues. Further, the report recognizes legalization as a viable strategy to combat the violence and state corruption that regulates the illicit drug trade, as was the case in the (alcohol) prohibition era recently illustrated in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

In my testimony with CJCJ’s Selena Teji, we summarized the findings of my report with Dr. Males:

• African Americans experience felony drug arrest rates 19 times higher than other races in San Francisco, and 7.3 times higher than African Americans elsewhere in California.
• San Francisco’s explosion in drug felony arrests of African Americans, during the 1995-2009 period, did not occur elsewhere in the state, nor for other measured racial categories in the city.
• The city’s African American female youth account for over 40% of the felony drug arrests of African American female youths in California, and have arrest rates 50 times higher than their counterparts in other counties.
• More than half of all youth drug felonies involved African Americans, who constitute 9% of the city’s youth; and one-third Latino males, who comprise 11% of the city’s youth.
• Despite disproportionately high drug arrest rates among young African Americans in San Francisco, of the more than 2,000 residents and nonresidents in the city who have died from abuse of illicit drugs in the last decade, 6 in 10 were non-Latino Whites, and more than 7 in 10 were age 40 and older.
• Such stunning and socially destructive practices and disparities arguably constitute human rights violations against African Americans in San Francisco under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the anti-discriminatory clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In agreement with social scientific research on contemporary systemic racism that recognizes the institutionalization of racial privilege and oppression and the role of “color-blind racism” in the post-civil rights era (Feagin, 1977, 2006, 2010; Feagin and Vera, 2001; Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Alexander, 2010; Ostertag and Armaline, 2011), international law does not require proof of conscious, explicit racial animus in the legal definition of racial discrimination as do U.S. courts—discriminatory results suffice (see also Fellner and Mauer, 1998).

Though a full report from the hearing in April awaits decision, that if adopted by the Commission would initiate review and public response by SFPD and the Board of Supervisors at the very least, the report’s adoption and publication are currently stalled. Populations of color, victims of the drug war, and the civil society that pays for this long expensive policy failure deserve an end to the drug war—perhaps faster than the system can or will deliver absent considerable resistance and political pressure.


Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, NY: The New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2003). Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the US. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feagin, Joe. 1977. “Indirect Institutionalized Discrimination: A Typology and Policy Analysis.” American Politics Quarterly 5(1):177-220.

______. (2006). Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.

______. (2010). Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New
York: Routledge.

Feagin, Joe, Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur. (2001). White Racism. 2nd ed. New York:

Fellner & Mauer. (1998). Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States. Washington D.C.: Joint Report from Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project. Retrieved on 03/30/12 from

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [ICERD], 660 UNTS 195, entered into force Jan. 4, 1969. The United States ratified ICERD on October 21, 1994.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, Art. 25. The U.S. ratified the ICCPR on June 8, 1992.

Ostertag, S. & W. T. Armaline. (2011). Image isn’t everything: Contemporary systemic racism and anti- racism in the age of Obama. Humanity and Society, 35(3).

William Armaline is the Director of Human Rights (@SJSUHumanRights) and an assistant professor in Justice Studies at San Jose State University.