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.


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.

* Black youths who sell drugs are poor, but white youths, not so much. Black youths who sell drugs are more than three times more likely to live in poverty than white youths who sell drugs. However, research by Sudhir Venkatesh (pdf) demonstrated that young drug dealers actually earn little money, and most sell drugs in the absence of typical youth employment opportunities.

* Black youths who sell drugs are much less likely to use drugs than are white youths who sell drugs. When we exclude marijuana, 77 percent of whites, 32 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Latinos who have sold drugs reported using drugs. Black youths who sold drugs were also significantly more likely to disapprove of their friends’ use of drugs. White people in general are more likely than black people to abuse drugs.

Positive Influences Can Change Outcomes

Research (pdf) suggests that regardless of race, youths are less likely to sell drugs when they 1) have fewer drug users in their social circle and higher disapproval of peer drug use, 2) have parents who strongly disapprove of drugs and who interact with them positively and 3) demonstrate a positive regard for school and have better academic functioning.

Comprehensive peer- and parent-education programs, school reform and pro-social-skills training are effective in preventing drug selling. In addition, with the high rates of poverty among black and Latino drug sellers, workforce programs and youth employment opportunities are important components of intervention programs.

Parents also play an important role in preventing drug selling. Intervention programs involving families should emphasize the role that parents’ disapproval of drugs has on adolescents’ decision not to sell drugs. School experiences also play a vital role in modulating teenagers’ decision to sell drugs. When youths find school meaningful and important and achieve good grades, they are less likely to sell drugs. School should also have comprehensive drug-education programs that allow students to discuss strategies to avoid selling and using drugs.

Recent juvenile-justice statistics indicate a trend toward fewer drug-related arrests over the last 15 years, but pronounced racial disparities continue to exist in drug-related juvenile arrest, detention, conviction and sentencing. Many of the disparities appear to be related to inherent biases within the criminal-justice system, as well as differences in drug markets and the nature of drug selling among black, Latino and white youths. Reducing reliance upon the criminal-justice system to address youth drug dealing and improving economic conditions, schools and social services in poor communities will ultimately lead to a more functional society.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter.