NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Racial Profiling Due To War On Drugs

April 17, 2001

The war on drugs, rather than racism, is responsible for much of the disparity in traffic stops of black motorists by police, says economist Morgan Reynolds.

A study by three University of Pennsylvania economists found police stop black motorists more than whites because it's the best way to get a lot of drug arrests and convictions, not because of racism. How do they know this?

  • Traffic studies and police testimony show that blacks and whites are not distinguishable by their driving behavior.
  • But 1990s data on highway stops by the Maryland State Police showed black motorists were stopped 3.5 times more often than whites.
  • Yet despite the relatively high search rate for black motorists, the police found contraband in the same percentage for both races, about one in three searches.

So there is "statistical discrimination," we might say, rather than race prejudice at work.

It's an unpleasant fact that blacks are disproportionately involved in the drug trade. Police take this into account -- which is not prohibited by settled law, provided there is a reasonable link between race and likely criminal involvement. This clears the Maryland cops of racism, but means that two of three stops are criminally unproductive for both races. Worse, innocent black motorists are stopped 3.5 times more often than whites. That's the real problem and a justified beef by the black community.

President Bush wants to improve "the just and equal administration of our nation's laws." The real place to start would be the war on drugs. The disproportionate harassment of black motorists is just one of its consequences.

Source: Morgan Reynolds (Director, Criminal Justice Center, NCPA), "Profiling Not All About Race," Washington Times, April 15, 2001.


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