What If Whites Were Race Profiled?

The recent Boston Globe story that revealed that blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be stopped and their cars searched during routine traffic stops is hardly news. The paper, which published its finding after analyzing nearly a million traffic tickets issued by police agencies throughout Massachusetts, merely confirmed what civil rights leaders have been saying for years.

However, the real news buried in the story was that the whites police stopped were much more likely to possess drugs than blacks or Latinos. This is no aberration. A couple of years ago, San Diego police officials acknowledged that black and Latino motorists were three times more likely to be stopped by police than whites. Yet, police found no greater amounts of illegal contraband on blacks than whites, and far less on Latinos than on whites. Also, following a barrage of lawsuits, costly settlements, and the threat of Justice Department intervention, in April, 1999, then New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman publicly admitted that many New Jersey state troopers racially profiled black and Latino motorists. What got virtually no public mention was that the blacks stopped were less likely to carry drugs, weapons and illegal contraband than the relative handful of whites stopped and searched.

This should not really surprise since the profile of a typical drug user in America is not a poor black, or Latino, but a young, middle-income white. The Justice Department’s 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, for instance, found that white students were four to five times more likely to sell and use drugs than blacks. Other studies have confirmed that whites use drugs more frequently than blacks or Latinos.

The entertainment magazines, scandal tabloids and TV talk shows are crammed with legions of articles and news features on and interviews with high-profile white stars, starlets and athletes who openly brag or cry about their drug escapades. They are not vilified or stereotyped. They are the object of public pity for their heroic battles against addiction. And Hollywood celebrities such as Robert Downey, Jr., continue their careers even after they have been convicted of drug offenses. The lopsided drug use by young whites has ignited no outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions and tough prison sentences for them. It would be political suicide for any public official to dare suggest that police profile white drug users as a tactic to win the drug war.

But the Globe revelation about white drug arrests raises this intriguing question. What if whites were profiled as relentlessly as civil rights leaders repeatedly charge that blacks and Latinos are, and an analysis of data of traffic stops based on race that police agencies in the 20 other states that are now required to compile would probably confirm?

It would radically change the complexion of the nearly two million prisoners that now jam America’s jails and prisons. At present, nearly half of them are black. And the overwhelming majority of them are there for petty crimes and drug offenses. They are more likely to get stiffer sentences in state and federal courts than whites. They were far less likely to strike plea bargains, get summary probation, have their juvenile records sealed, and get referrals to drug diversion programs than whites. If the Globe had gone one step further and analyzed the cases of the whites that were arrested for drug offenses following traffic stops and car searches, it would have been interesting to know what, if any, sentences they got as opposed to the blacks and Latinos police stopped and arrested.

White profiling would also probably show that racial-profiling is a worthless police tool in preventing drug crimes. The drugs would still flow just as freely in the suburbs, on college campuses and in chic offices as it does in the ghettoes. It would, however, criminalize a generation of young whites, just as it has done with young blacks and Latinos, further obliterate civil liberties protections and create grotesque racial stereotypes about crime and criminals.

But white profiling could accelerate the drive by drug reform groups, some lawmakers, and the courts to send people to drug treatment programs rather than prison. It could prod President Bush to back up the quickly forgotten pledge he made during the presidential campaign to take a fresh look at the nation’s drug laws with an eye toward reform. It could also force Congress to approve the recommendations made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission during former President Clinton’s second term to modify or eliminate the racial disparities in the mandatory federal drug sentencing laws.

While the Globe presented no new news about who is racially profiled in America, it did explode the myth that blacks and Latinos are America’s inherent lawbreakers. That is certainly news.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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