Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States

By Fellner, Jamie | Stanford Law & Policy Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States


Fellner, Jamie, Stanford Law & Policy Review


Since the mid-1980s, the United States has pursued aggressive law enforcement strategies to curtail the use and distribution of illegal drugs. The costs and benefits of this national "war on drugs" remain fiercely debated. (1) What is not debatable, however, is that this ostensibly race-neutral effort has been waged primarily against black Americans. Relative to their numbers in the general population and among drug offenders, black Americans are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.

Public officials have been relatively untroubled by the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of blacks for drug offenses. Their relative indifference--and that of the public at large--no doubt reflects, to varying degrees, partisan politics, "tough on crime" punitive philosophies, misinformation about drugs, an uncritical embrace of drug war logic, and misguided notions about the needs of poor urban communities. But to some extent it also reflects conscious and unconscious views about race. Indeed, those views have been woven into the very fabric of American anti-drug efforts, influencing the definition of the "drug problem" and the nature of the response to it.

Although whites are relatively untouched by anti-drug efforts compared to blacks, (2) supporters of the drug war may not see a problem of race discrimination because they do not believe the purpose of drug law enforcement is to harm blacks--if anything, drug law enforcement is seen as protecting minority communities from addiction, harassment, and violence. Perhaps without realizing it, they have accepted the same definition of discrimination that the courts use in constitutional equal protection cases--absent ill-intent, there is no discrimination.

The requirements of a malign intent as well as a racially disparate effect for a finding of racial discrimination in United States constitutional jurisprudence differ from those in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which the United States has ratified. (3) In defining discrimination, the treaty decouples intent from impact. Prohibited discrimination occurs where there is an unjustifiable disparate impact on a racial or ethnic group, regardless of whether there is any intent to discriminate against that group. Where official policies or practices are racially discriminatory, the State party to the treaty must act affirmatively to prevent or end them. Indeed, full compliance requires elimination of racial inequalities resulting from structural racism. (4)

As a party to ICERD, the United States is bound by its provisions and obligated to ensure its fulfillment. (5) It must "condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms." (6) It must not engage in any act or practice "of racial discrimination against person, groups of persons or institutions and ... [it must] ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in conformity with this obligation." (7) In addition, it must "review governmental, national and local policies, and ... amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists." (8)

The United States has claimed that "the framework of legal prohibitions and enforcement mechanisms [existing in the United States] not only satisfies the requirements of [ICERD], but serves as an example to the world, of which the United States should be very proud." (9) It is true that many of the provisions of ICERD are similar to those already contained in federal and state constitutions and legislation. But ICERD is more protective than those laws. If it is to satisfy its treaty obligations, the United States must "take greater responsibility for the role it plays--and has played--in creating and perpetuating racial discrimination and inequality.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?