The Reasons Why So Many Black People Are in Prison Go Well Beyond Profiling

Although Whites and African Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates, Black men in 2003 were almost 12 times as likely to go to prison as White men.
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When we think of racial profiling, we generally think of a person of color, perhaps a Black or Latino man or woman, in a car who gets stopped by police based on skin color. Often, a minor traffic infraction, like failing to signal when changing lanes, provides the legal rationale for such stops, when in reality the stops are motivated by race.

Most Americans get why this is wrong. But the role that race plays in the criminal justice system goes far beyond this type of profiling.

On Sunday, the Washington Post featured an essay by two experts, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, and David Cole, a Georgetown law professor, who in "Five Myths about Americans in Prison" examined the role of race in incarceration.

These men show that not only are people of color stopped more frequently by police, their communities, particularly with anti-drug efforts, receive far more attention from police. And black men are often charged and prosecuted differently than their White counterparts.

Mauer and Cole attempt to dispel the myth that there is a disproportionate number of Black people in prison because Black people commit more crimes.

They point out that although Whites and African Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates, Black men in 2003 were almost 12 times as likely to go to prison as White men. Although Black people are 12 percent of the population and 14 percent of drug users, according to Mauer and Cole, they comprise 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 45 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for such offenses.

Both men attribute disparities in incarceration rates in part to the way urban Black communities are policed.

"Police find drugs where they look for them," they wrote. "Inner-city, open-air drug markets are easier to bust than those that operate out of suburban basements. And numerous studies show that minorities are stopped by police more often than Whites."

To understand the over-incarceration of black people, one must take a good hard look at all the ways black communities are policed. When I worked as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in Newport News, Va., it was immediately obvious to me that the city's East End -- a low-income Black urban community -- was over-policed. Whenever I drove into the East End, it seemed that I couldn't drive more than a couple of blocks without encountering a police car. I could drive miles in another part of the city without running into an officer.

Once on a police ride-a-long, the officer I rode with pulled over a Black woman who had stopped along the double-yellow line to let her grandson out to attend an afterschool program.

The officer, a White male, slammed on the brakes, hopped out and asked for her drivers' license. When she complied, he ran the license through a crime database to see if she had any outstanding warrants.

When I asked the officer why he stopped the woman, he said that it was illegal to stop in the middle of the street to let someone out. I can't imagine that in one of the wealthier and Whiter areas of the city that an older White woman would be stopped and detained under similar circumstances.

The saturation of police in the East End helped me gain a better understanding of how low-income urban Black communities are policed.

To focus law enforcement efforts on one or two racial groups while limiting scrutiny and arrests of another is theoretically illegal -- a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Fifth Amendment's protection from abuse by government authority. But subjecting communities of color to differential treatment goes on every day despite those constitutional protections.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Police Department's latest data from the first quarter of 2011 shows police still stop and frisk African Americans at far higher rates than they do Whites with their odious stop-and-frisk law. Some 50.6 percent of the 183,326 who were frisked were Black in the first three months of the year, although African Americans comprise just 23 percent of the city's population. Ironically, Whites are more likely to be found with illegal drugs or weapons than Blacks or Latinos.

Profiling is the starting place for this disparate treatment. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be charged, tried and convicted than their White counterparts for the same offenses. And money is perhaps the crucial factor in determining whether you get adequate legal help.

As a starting place to deal with this bias, the Rights Working Group is calling for passage of the End Racial Profiling Act and recommending that the Department of Justice Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies be made enforceable. To find out more, visit

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