The recent killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, 17, is a disturbing case that has provoked outrage across the country. The black teenager was walking back to his father's house when he was spotted by neighborhood watch officer George Zimmerman, who is Latino. Zimmerman called police to report that he was suspicious of Martin and then followed him, leading to a confrontation in which Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Martin was unarmed; Zimmerman obviously had a gun. Authorities performed drug and alcohol tests on Martin but not on Zimmerman. Zimmerman is claiming he killed Martin in self-defense, and currently he has not been arrested or charged with a crime because there is not yet enough evidence to dispute his self-defense claim.
Over the past several days, protesters nationwide have been demanding Zimmerman's arrest. They have argued that Martin was seen as "suspicious" simply because he was a black male, and that he would still be alive if he had been white. Their claim is that Martin fell victim to a stereotype of black males as criminals.
I know far too little about the details of this case to make an informed argument for or against Zimmerman's arrest. If there is truly not enough evidence to prosecute him, arresting him would make no difference at all. But those who are angry about black males being stereotyped as criminals should look no further than the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs, a US policy of increased enforcement and harsh sentences for drug offenses, started under Johnson and Nixon and then was significantly escalated under Reagan. Not coincidentally, the US prison population doubled between 1980 and 1990, and doubled again between 1990 and 2000. Although blacks are only 12% of the country's population, they comprise 62% of people sent to prison for drug offenses, most of them nonviolent.
As we should have learned during the 1920's, outlawing a popular product will likely lead to a large black market, the growth of gangs, and associated gang violence. As in the 20's, these gangs became most prevalent in the cities where drugs are most readily available, and in poor neighborhoods where people are looking for any way to make a buck. So law enforcement focused their efforts on those poor urban neighborhoods--which are often black neighborhoods--and a lot of black nonviolent drug offenders get caught in the dragnet. And over time, it's not hard to see how that could lead to a stereotype of black men as criminals.