(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.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.