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Race, Class, and Drugs

William J. Stuntz
Columbia Law Review
Vol. 98, No. 7 (Nov., 1998), pp. 1795-1842
DOI: 10.2307/1123466
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1123466
Page Count: 48
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Race, Class, and Drugs
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Abstract

Urban crack markets have received more police attention than markets for cocaine powder, and crack buyers and sellers have received harsher punishments than powder buyers and sellers. Crack defendants are largely black; powder defendants are not. Some say this divide is simply racist. Others say the system actually helps black communities by concentrating on black drug crime. In this Essay, Professor Stuntz argues that neither position is correct. The recent focus on crack, he claims, has less to do with race than with class. The market for cocaine, like many other markets, tends to segment into upscale and downscale markets. Downscale markets tend to be much easier for the police to penetrate than upscale markets. In addition, the social harms from consensual crime tend to be concentrated where the downscale markets are--in poor urban neighborhoods. As a result, police and prosecutors tend to focus their attention not on drug crime generally, but on certain kinds of drug crime in certain kinds of neighborhoods. This enforcement strategy, in turn, tends naturally to produce racial or ethnic "tilts," since poor urban neighborhoods are so often segregated along racial or ethnic lines. This process is not new: Much the same thing happened in the way police attacked prostitution in the late 1800s and alcohol in the 1920s. Though this kind of enforcement stragegy is understandable, Stuntz argues that it is likely to fail. Differential enforcement breeds resentment, which undermines the law's normative force. To succeed, drug enforcement needs to become more self-consciously egalitarian.

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