‘Unexplained racial disparity’

Aug. 20, 2014 @ 05:19 PM

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s request that the Police Department explain why the vast majority of marijuana arrests in this city are of black people suggests two reactions.

One, and we truly mean this, is – yes! It is exactly right that Bonfield – indeed, anyone – should wonder why 86 percent of the marijuana arrests over the past 18 months have been of African-Americans.

The second reaction, a bit less charitably, might be to wonder why we are just now realizing and focusing on this. We suspect that many black citizens could and would readily have offered that conclusion based on real-world observed evidence.

To be fair, Durham is nothing more than a reflection of national trends in drug enforcement. There is growing national alarm over the troubling evidence that drug enforcement generally has overzealously targeted black citizens. We might also note that our war on drugs has been markedly ineffective at doing anything other than driving our prison population to levels that exceed other developed countries, but that’s an issue for another day.

Bonfield has given police until the end of the year to look into and report back on the “unexplained racial disparity” in the marijuana arrests.  That seems a generous amount of time, but we’re glad there is a deadline.

Nationwide, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “one consistent trend” in drug-law enforcement is “significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

Durham exceeds that – our ratio is more like six to one in favor of arresting blacks.  We have no particular reason to think that our city differs dramatically from the national statistics in marijuana use.

True, our population mix is different than the natural norm.  And Durham police make arrests for marijuana possession less often than their counterparts across the nation, including in other major North Carolina cities. But with whites and blacks being roughly equal here – just over 40 percent each of the population – the arrest percentage is double the population percentage of African Americans.

At every level, the consequences of our war on drugs have fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. Increasingly, the country is beginning to realize the impact of this has gone far beyond simple unfairness.  Far too many young African-American men are ending up with prison records that thwart employment opportunities, keep individuals and families in poverty and increase the likelihood of turning to crime in the absence of the prospect of a legitimate job.

The community already is engaged in an important discussion of whether there are racial disparities in law enforcement. Durham has a reputation for confronting these kinds of issues with honest, open debate. Bonfield’s report, and the subsequent police examination for which he has asked, should give us an opportunity to do that on marijuana enforcement.