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Drug Testing and Racial Profiling

Check out the stats below: whites significantly trump blacks in all drug use except crack. So why do so many employers assume that black job applicants are drug users?

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By Cameron Turner

07/14/14

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“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. But millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures but because of the color of their skin… But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”

This influential segment of white American society accuses us of whining, even as they ignore evidence of continued racial stereotyping.

With that bold statement, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. That milestone legislation took a sledge hammer to the legal pillars of segregation by banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin and gender. But, as we have seen in the half century since, it takes more than Congressional votes and the stroke of a President’s pen to scratch out the racist attitudes which have been part of our American culture since colonial times.  

While enormous progress has been made in the area of racial justice, old stereotypes endure. Assumptions of intellectual inferiority, laziness, moral laxity, and criminality continue to haunt African-Americans, especially African-American men. The stubborn resilience of such perceptions shores up the disparities in opportunity and quality of life that remain between black and white Americans.  

So, it isn’t surprising that employers who require drug screening for potential hires often assume that black job applicants are drug users. Is this fact insulting? Yes. Infuriating? Yes. Surprising? No. It is just another example of the bias that black Americans have struggled against throughout our nation’s history, and which still hobbles our progress in the post-Civil Rights era.  One major example: Although African America make up only 14% of the drug using population, 37% of Americans incarcerated for drugs are African American, put there by a law enforcement and criminal justice system that is clearly biased in its targeting of blacks and in its conviction rate.  Overall, one in three African American males end up in jail at some point in their lives.

As The Fix reported in May, research out of Notre Dame University reveals that African-American job seekers are also hampered by drug-related stereotypes. In her report, “Discrimination and The Effects of Drug Testing on Black Employment,” Notre Dame associate economics professor Abigail K. Wozniak states, “In a survey of hiring managers, there is a belief that Blacks are more likely to fail a drug test…They also cite a 1989 survey in which 95% of [hiring survey] respondents described the typical drug user as Black.”

The assumption that black job seekers are more likely than their white counterparts to be drug abusers mirrors a broader societal impression reinforced by the fact that young blacks are arrested for drug crimes at higher rates than whites. But multiple studies have shown that drug use and dependency are actually less prevalent among African-Americans than among whites.

According to a 2011 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more whites have used various drugs—including marijuana, cocaine, stimulants (such as methamphetamine), prescription painkillers and alcohol—than blacks. Crack is the only drug that is used by more African-Americans than whites. The percentages of blacks and whites who have used drugs break down this way:

SubstanceAfrican/AmericanWhite
Marijuana40.456.3
Cocaine9.917.7
Stimulants2.19.1
Painkillers10.615.2
Alcohol75.087.1
Crack5.03.4

Statistics on drug abuse and dependency also tilt toward whites. In 2011, researchers at Duke University analyzed data on youth drug use contained in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. They concluded that 9% of young whites who took drugs were abusers or addicts. For young blacks the number was 5%—almost half of the white number. Dr. Dan Blazer, who led the Duke research team, told TIME magazine, “There’s a perception among many individuals that African Americans as a group—regardless of socioeconomic status—tend to abuse or use drugs at higher rates and this (does not support) that.”  

Ironically, drug testing actually benefits black job applicants by revealing that most are not drug users. Wozniak writes that in states where drug screening is required for certain jobs, “Adoption of pro-testing legislation increases black employment in the testing sector by seven to 30% and relative wages by 1.4 to 13%, with the largest shifts among low skilled black men." However, in states where testing is not done, black applicants lose out to white women. “Results further suggest that employers substitute white women for blacks in the absence of testing.” Wozniak concludes.  

Hearing that, one may be tempted to say that a solution to employment discrimination is to mandate more drug testing. That way, black job applicants could prove that they aren’t drug users and thereby increase their chances of being hired. Everybody wins, right? Wrong. African-Americans would lose in the long run because such an approach would validate the racist perceptions that force us to justify ourselves when we haven’t done anything that could reasonably spark suspicion. Such perceptions are dangerous because they don’t merely make it difficult for blacks to get jobs, they can literally put our lives at risk.  

Before the altercation that left 17-year-old Trayvon Martin dead, George Zimmerman made up his mind that the black high-schooler was dangerous. That’s why he called 911 and said, “This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something.” But Zimmerman’s own description of Martin’s actions reveals that the teen hadn’t done anything threatening. “It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about,” Zimmerman told the emergency dispatcher. Later he said that Martin “was just staring” and “looking at all the houses.”  

Since when does walking around and looking at houses constitute drug-induced, potentially criminal behavior that requires an urgent call to the cops?  It doesn’t.  

Unless the guy doing all that walking and looking is a black male—especially a young black male—who has the temerity to wear a hooded sweatshirt on a rainy night. All of that adds up to probable cause to someone whose mind is polluted by racist stereotypes. 

Another reason that expanding drug testing is a poor response to job discrimination is the fact that perceived drug use is only one stereotype held against African-American would-be employees. The mere fact of our blackness is the basis for some of the strongest (but most difficult to prove) objections by some hiring managers.  

In 2003, the National Bureau of Economic Research (the same group that published the Wozniak report) concluded that job applicants with African-American-sounding names had a much harder time landing job interviews than applicants whose names sounded white. The report, which was titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.” The rejections were even higher for resumes that combined ethnic-skewing names with ZIP codes of low income neighborhoods.  

Black Americans have neither the means nor the responsibility to eradicate racism in the U.S. And we certainly don’t need to prove that we are worthy of equality by showing that we are respectable, law abiding, productive and patriotic citizens who have always made substantial and important contributions to the nation. These facts are obvious to anyone who views history and current events with unbiased eyes.  

Uprooting the racism which has brought misery to black and other Americans of color is a white responsibility. Happily, there have been (and continue to be) countless white men and women who have labored, suffered and died in pursuit of racial justice. And our nation has made breathtaking strides since the bad old days when segregation and discrimination were maintained by custom and enforced by law. But far too many American whites continue to respond with indifference, impatience or hostility toward the pleas by blacks and other minorities for fairness and equality. This influential segment of white American society accuses us of whining, even as they ignore evidence of continued racial stereotyping, profiling and discriminatory treatment.  

Remember when black Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates was arrested in 2009 by a white police officer for supposedly disturbing the peace on the porch of his own house? Law enforcement professionals across the country publicly criticized the cop for a bad arrest and the local district attorney refused to file charges. But when President Obama said that the officer acted “stupidly” he was pilloried by right wing opinion leaders. Rush Limbaugh called it a case of “a black president trying to destroy a white policeman." Glenn Beck said Mr. Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Even after he tried to make peace by inviting Dr. Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for the informal “beer summit,” the President was still blasted as a supposedly divisive figure. The attacks were false, but they were indicative of the lengths to which some angry white Americans will go to deny that members their race might still be mistreating people of color because of color. 

Moments before he affixed his signature to the Voting Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson exhorted Americans to put racial animosity aside and unite to “bring justice and hope to all our people.” Johnson urged the nation: “Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole.”  

Although the America of 2014 is dramatically, and beautifully, different from the America of 1964, LBJ’s admonition still challenges our nation and the hearts of its people.

Cameron Turner is a writer based in Los Angeles. He last wrote about sobriety and hip hop and how our veterans are being destroyed by painkiller prescriptions.

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