Dealing With Black Boys Who Deal Drugs

Show Me the Numbers: Research shows that racial bias in the juvenile-justice system leads to unfair treatment.

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In New Jack City we remember Nino Brown, the drug kingpin of the projects. However, Less Than Zero's Rip, the extremely vile drug kingpin of Beverly Hills, is a vague afterthought. Instead we remember the poor white kid, Julian, who had to work off a debt to him. Less Than Zero allows us to see Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr., as a victim, even though he was engaged in criminal activity.

Gangsta rap, in which black men pose as drug kingpins who have little or no experience selling drugs, also creates powerful images that fuel negative perceptions of black youths. Such images create biases and help kids who look like the young Downey appear as victims in court, while kids who look like The Wire's Michael Lee appear as budding Nino Browns. The numbers demonstrating this bias are stark. According to the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, since 1985, 2,088,607 white juvenile males have been arrested for drug offenses, but only 17 percent have been detained. By contrast, since 1985, 958,778 black juvenile males have been arrested for drug offenses, and 40 percent have been detained.



In addition, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 1980, 386 white youths ages 10-17 out of every 100,000 youths were arrested for drug-related offenses, compared with 375 black youths. By 1995, black youths' arrest rate for drug violations had more than quadrupled to 1,672 -- more than triple the corresponding rate of 514 for white juveniles.

Today the rate of drug-related arrests is down significantly for black and white youths, but racial disparities remain. To further explore differences between black and white youths who sell drugs, I analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Black Youths Who Sell Drugs: Separating Myth From Reality

* Selling drugs may be more common than we think, but few youths sell drugs regularly. Of the 5,525 adolescent males who participated in the NSDUH study, 5.6 percent admitted to selling drugs at least once. Adjusting for the 10- to 17-year-old male population in the U.S., we can estimate that about 619,745 adolescent males have sold drugs at least once. However, about half of youths who sell drugs sell them only once. The racial breakdown of those in the study who have sold drugs was 6.9 percent of blacks, 4.5 percent of Latinos and 4.3 percent of whites.

* Black youths typically start and stop selling drugs at a younger age than most people think. Among the adolescents who sold drugs, the majority of them were in the 10th and 11th grades, with a substantial drop-off in the 12th grade. Black youths were more likely to start selling drugs at a younger age. Almost 20 percent of black male adolescents who reported selling drugs were in the fifth through eighth grades. Among the youths sampled, a greater percentage of white youths who sold drugs were in high school.