Systemic Racism Video: Drug Arrests

In the next video in the systemic racism video series, Jay Smooth explains drug arrests in this short (:52) clip:

The text of the video reads:

Did you know that over 40% of drug arrests are not for selling any drugs but just for possession of marijuana? And that White and Black Americans are about equally likely to use marijuana, but Blacks are 3.7 more likely to be arrested for it? And that even if they don’t get convicted of a crime that arrest can stay on their record and affect their chances at good jobs, housing and bank loans for the rest of their lives?

Race Forward, the producers of the video series, lists several sources (a New York Times story and this website). In addition, there’s a vast array of resources at The New York Times on this subject, particularly around racial disparity in marijuana arrests, all driving home the point that although white and black people use marijuana at comparable rates, it’s black folks who end up arrested for simple possession, as illustrated in this graphic:

Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests, map and bar graph

Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests, Image source: NYTimes Data source: ACLU

There’s also a huge amount of academic research behind this, if you want to dig a little deeper.

  • Beckett, Katherine, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst. “Race, Drugs, And Policing: Understanding Disparities In Drug Delivery Arrests*.” Criminology 44, no. 1 (2006): 105-137. Abstract:This article draws on several unique data sources to assess and explain racial disparity in Seattle’s drug delivery arrests. Evidence regarding the racial and ethnic composition of those who deliver any of five serious drugs in that city is compared with the racial and ethnic composition of those arrested for this offense. Our findings indicate that blacks are significantly overrepresented among Seattle’s drug delivery arrestees. Several organizational practices explain racial disparity in these arrests: law enforcement’s focus on crack offenders, the priority placed on outdoor drug venues, and the geographic concentration of police resources in racially heterogeneous areas. The available evidence further indicates that these practices are not determined by race-neutral factors such as crime rates or community complaints. Our findings thus indicate that race shapes perceptions of who and what constitutes Seattle’s drug problem, as well as the organizational response to that problem.  (locked)
  • Donohue III, John J., and Steven D. Levitt. “The Impact of Race on Policing and Arrests*Journal of Law and Economics 44, no. 2 (2001): 367-394. Abstract: Race has long been recognized as playing a critical role in policing. In spite of this awareness, there has been little previous research that attempt to quantitatively analyze the impact of officer race on tangible outcomes. In this paper, we examine the relationship between the racial composition of a city’s police force and the racial patterns of arrests. Increases in the number of minority police are associated with significant increases in arrests of whites but have little impact on arrests of nonwhites. Similarly, more white police increase the number of arrests of nonwhites but do not systematically affect the number of white arrests. These patterns are particularly striking for minor offenses. Understanding the reasons for this empirical regularity and the consequent impact on crime is an important subject for future research.  (locked)
  • Levine, Harry G., and Deborah Peterson Small. Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City 1997-2007. New York Civil Liberties Union, 2008. Abstract: From 1997 to 2006, the New York City Police Department arrested and jailed more than 353,000 people simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. This was eleven times more marijuana arrests than in the previous decade, and ten times more than in the decade before that. (OA)

  • Levine, Harry Gene, Jon B. Gettman, and Loren Siegel. Targeting Blacks for Marijuana: Possession Arrests of African Americans in California, 2004-08. Drug Policy Alliance, 2010. Abstract: The study found that in every one of the 25 largest California counties, Blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple, or even quadruple the rate of Whites; however, U.S. Government studies have consistently found that young Blacks use marijuana at lower rates than young Whites. These racially biased arrests are system-wide, occurring in every county and nearly every police jurisdiction in California. This suggests that the pattern of over-representation of Blacks in arrests for marijuana possession is not due to the bias of individual officers, but rather to a general policy of resource allocation among law enforcement agencies. These marijuana possession arrests have serious consequences. They create permanent “drug arrest” records that can be easily found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards, and banks. The stigma of a criminal record for marijuana possession can create barriers to employment and education for anyone; however, criminal records for marijuana possession severely limit the chances for employment and related economic advancement among the poor and the young, particularly young Blacks and Latinos. (locked)


  • Levine, Harry G., Jon B. Gettman, Craig Reinarman, and Deborah Peterson Small. “Drug Arrests and DNA: building Jim Crow’s Database.” GeneWatch (2008). Abstract: DNA databases are increasingly including samples from people with misdemeanor offenses. Expanding the use of DNA databases to include more drug offenses, particularly the large number of drug possession misdemeanors, will add ever greater numbers of Blacks and Latinos to these databases. (OA)


  • Parker, Karen F., and Scott R. Maggard. “Structural theories and race-specific drug arrests: What structural factors account for the rise in race-specific drug arrests over time?.” Crime & Delinquency 51, no. 4 (2005): 521-547. Abstract: Studies examining the structural correlates of urban crime have generated a large body of research; however, few studies have linked the structural conditions to race-specific drug arrests. In this study, the authors examine the impact of urban disadvantage, social disorganization, and racial threat indicators on the rise in race-specific drug arrests from 1980 to 1990. They find these theoretical perspectives contribute to an understanding of the change in race-specific drug arrests. Findings indicate that shifts in the urban economy significantly affected Black drug arrests, while having no effect on the change in White drug arrests. In addition, the shift away from manufacturing jobs significantly affected Black arrests for drug possession. Consistent with the theory, social disorganization measures proved equally significant for Whites and Blacks, whereas mixed support was found for racial threat arguments. The importance of a theoretically grounded exploration into the rise in racial disparities in drug arrests is highlighted.(OA)

Next up, immigration policy.

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