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.


(The Root) — In a March 2012 article for Baton Rouge, La.’s The Advocate, reporter Naomi Martin wrote, referring to me, “While some of his childhood friends still sell drugs on the streets of Baton Rouge, Toldson has a much different life as a professor at Howard University.”

This statement confused me and made me apathetic about an otherwise positive story Martin penned, entitled, “Professor: Recognize Black Successes.” During the interview, the reporter and I talked at length about several of my childhood friends who started selling drugs. I told her about my best friend from middle school who began selling drugs during our senior year. Less than two years later, he stopped selling drugs after being arrested. He considered enrolling in college; however, his arrest record made it difficult for him to obtain student aid.

During the interview, Martin pointedly asked, “Do any of your friends still sell drugs?” My response was, “No, there’s no such thing as a 40-year-old drug dealer, unless he becomes a kingpin, which is extremely rare … most teenagers who sell drugs stop before they turn 18.”

After reading the article, I puzzled over Martin’s insistence that my friends “still” sold drugs. However, her notion that black teenagers who sell drugs are likely to become adult drug dealers is widespread, albeit inaccurate.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences at the federal level, in an attempt to rectify several decades of drug policies that are rife with racial inequities. These changes, however, will not directly affect the outcomes for youths who are arrested for selling drugs, where vast racial disparities remain.

For this entry of Show Me the Numbers, I examine key differences between black and white youths who sell drugs in order to assess the current racial disparities in sentences. In addition, I challenge common myths and misconceptions about young black males who sell drugs.

Black and White Boys Who Deal: Same Crime, Different Outcomes

Public perceptions of drug offenses among black people began to shift in the 1980s. A breach in the U.S. borders created by President Ronald Reagan’s support for a militia called the Contras in Nicaragua flooded inner cities with cocaine. The Contras funded their subversive activities by selling cocaine to suppliers in the United States. The drug was usually sold in rock form to make it more accessible to poor people.

At the time, the media were perversely misrepresenting rock cocaine. Rock cocaine received a new name, “crack,” which made it appear to be something different from the “freebase” that white people started doing decades earlier, and pseudoscience made crack appear to be more addictive and lethal than powder cocaine. There was also a heightened level of violence associated with crack in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the draconian drug laws of the 1980s did not address violence; they targeted crack, leading to a surge of nonviolent offenders in the criminal-justice system.

The juvenile-justice system’s disparate treatment of black and white drug offenders seemed to follow a trend in the way that black drug crimes and white drug crimes were being depicted in the media and in movies. Contrast two movies of that era, New Jack City and Less Than Zero.

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.