ACLU History: Black America: Casualties of the 'War on Drugs'

Document Date: September 1, 2010

In the modern era, a subtler but equally pernicious form of institutional racism came to be known as ‘driving while black or brown.’ The practice of racial profiling by police on our nation’s highways has resulted in black travelers disproportionately being stopped, searched and arrested. Significant blame for this rampant abuse of power can be laid at the feet of the government’s ‘war on drugs,’ in which blacks are targeted and thus arrested for drug possession at a far higher rate than whites, resulting in skewed statistics that ‘prove’ that blacks are more likely to be involved with drugs.

In 1999, the ACLU published the first comprehensive report on the problem, Driving While Black, and carried out an extensive legal and public education campaign on the issue that continues to the present day. In 2003, the national ACLU and ACLU of Maryland brought Wilkins v. Maryland State Police, the first important racial profiling case. It led to a set of reforms designed to end discriminatory practices. The ACLU also lobbied for federal and state laws that would require law enforcement agencies to collect data on traffic stops, including data on the race of persons stopped.

Another drug war policy that deeply affected the black population was the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine, in which possession of only five grams of crack cocaine triggered the same mandatory minimum sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. There was a strong racial component to the disparity as crack arrestees were far more likely to be black. The ACLU has pressed for changes to this law for nearly two decades and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has recommended repeatedly that Congress address the disparity. On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that reduces the discriminatory ratio (to 18-1) and eliminates a mandatory minimum sentence—in this case for simple possession of crack cocaine.


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