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“A Run-In with the Cops is Really Few and Far Between”: Negative Evidence and Ethnographic Understanding of Racial Discrimination by Police

Published onJun 08, 2020
“A Run-In with the Cops is Really Few and Far Between”: Negative Evidence and Ethnographic Understanding of Racial Discrimination by Police

Note: This is the postprint of the following paper; publisher version available here.

Jacques, Scott. 2017. “A Run-In with the Cops is Really Few and Far Between”: Negative Evidence and Ethnographic Understanding of Racial Discrimination by Police. Sociological Focus 50:7-17.​ 

Abstract: Statistics show that blacks are subjected to disproportionately more policing than whites, and more often interpret their encounters with police as affected by racial discrimination. The ethnographic evidence supports the numbers, but this body of work, I suggest, has been too focused on blacks’ experiences with prejudicial policing. A fruitful but largely unexplored way to advance the ethnographic study of police discrimination is to collect and analyze data from the group receiving preferential treatment from officers: whites. In practice, this often involves collecting and analyzing nonevents, such as not being stopped by police. This article’s purpose is to outline and illustrate the benefits and difficulties of such research by drawing on Lewis and Lewis’s 1980 typology of “negative evidence” and findings from my study of 30 white drug dealers.


Life isn’t fair. When it comes to criminal “justice,” no group in the U.S. is more aware of that maxim than Blacks. For instance, one national survey found that 37% of Blacks but only 1% of Whites reported being discriminated against by police (Weitzer and Tuch 2005). And studies based on official statistics, self-reports, and independent observations find that controlling for criminal involvement, police are significantly more likely to stop, investigate, and arrest Blacks than Whites (Alexander 2010; Beckett, Nyrop, and Pfingst 2006; Beckett et al. 2005; Gelman, Fagan, Kiss 2007; Western 2006).

Many ethnographic studies have expanded understanding of Blacks’ discriminatory experiences with police. The seminal work in this field is Du Bois’ (1899) The Philadelphia Negro. More recent contributions include Anderson’s (1999) Code of the Street, Duneier’s (1999) Sidewalk, and Goffman’s (2014) On the Run. Such research is indispensable, but there is another way to ethnographically study race-based discriminatory policing.

By definition, discrimination involves one person or group being treated worse or better than another. To date, the ethnographic research on racial discrimination by police has largely focused on the racial group being treated the worst—Blacks.[1] Yet it is also important to study White’s experiences with police discrimination. The key to doing so is zeroing in on “negative evidence,” or non-events and non-reporting (Lewis and Lewis 1980). Examples are not being pulled over or arrested by police, and not reporting one’s experiences as due to discrimination.

The purpose of this paper is to promote the potential of negative evidence for furthering understanding of racially discriminatory policing. To do so, I draw on Lewis and Lewis’ (1980) typology of negative evidence. I use this typology to explore the (non-)experiences of 30 young, middle-class, suburban drug dealers. The goal of this examination is to show the benefits and difficulties of ethnographically studying police discrimination from the perspective of Whites. The paper concludes by considering implications for future research. 

Ethnographic Evidence of Police Discrimination against Blacks

To briefly illustrate the basic findings of prior ethnographic research on Blacks’ experiences with discriminatory policing, I focus on findings from Brunson’s (2007) study of young Black males. The reason I focus on Brunson’s research is it mirrors my own study, which is fully described in a following section. The major similarities are the following: Brunson’s study involved interviews with 40 Black adolescent males residing in an urban, disadvantaged community, whereas I interviewed 30 White adolescents—28 male, 2 female—from suburban, advantaged communities. Both studies pertain to the same era, as he conducted interviews from 1999 to 2000 and I did so from 2004 to 2005. And while Brunson’s study was not meant to be one of drug dealers per se, as was mine, his data clearly demonstrate the importance of (suspected) drug crime in discriminatory policing.

One finding from Brunson’s study is that the participants had high odds of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police. As one young Black male said of the police:

“[I]f they see us every five minutes … they think we selling drugs or something, and they’ll stop us like five, six times a day. Just to pat us down and ask questions” (p. 84). Another individual described how police invaded his community and privacy:

On certain days, [the police] might do a sweep through the neighborhood. They’ll come in like, three or four cars deep, two paddy wagons, and they’ll just roll down every block that they think mainly sellin’ drugs or whatever. And anybody outside, if they think you got something, they gon’ check you. Just everybody that happen to be on the block … they just come up to you, tell you to assume the position or whatever. [Tell you to] put your hands on the hood [and they] check you. If you do got something, you in the paddy wagon and they take you downtown. If not, they gon’ check you, talk bad to you for a lil’ minute and then tell you to go on about your business. (p. 84, brackets in original)

Brunson’s participants also reported that it was not unusual for officers to degrade and steal from suspects. For instance, one subject explained that “[t]he police will ride up on a group of guys, they’ll get out, they’ll make you lay on the ground, they’ll pull your clothes all off you. Or they make you take your shoes and socks off. I mean, just unnecessary stuff” (p. 84-5). Another individual described unwarranted confiscation by police: “If you ain’t got no proof of where your money coming from, then they automatically suspect that it’s drug money and they take as much as you got. It don’t matter if you say ‘I got that for a birthday present,’ they still can take it. That’s messed up” (p. 86).

Among the young Black males interviewed by Brunson, the high probability of being arrested was a taken-for-granted feature of social life. Moreover, they noted that police often used violence when making arrests. For instance, a young Black male reflecting on his experiences with police said, “I been thrown on the ground, I been kicked …, I been choked, man I could go on forever” (p. 87). Another participant described a specific incident of police violence perpetrated by undercover officers:

I was standing on the corner and we got these police we call the jump out boys. They the police [that be] riding them regular cars and look like regular people. They like “what you doing on this corner?” And I’m just steady talking to ‘em and they thought I had some dope in my mouth. So this one cop grabbed me and just started squeezing [my throat]. I was coughing and spitting up stuff and I’m like “what you all doing this for?” and they kept on like “don’t swallow it son.” I’m like “swallow, I ain’t got no dope!” I opened up my mouth after they let go. I was showing them and everything. I mean that’s they job to make sure dope isn’t on the street but I mean I don’t think it is their job to literally squeeze someone’s Adam’s apple. (p. 88)

It is important to keep in mind that these various police-citizen encounters did not occur in a racial vacuum. Rather, these experiences are interpreted by Brunson’s participants as due, in part, to being Black. Perhaps one subject put it best: “[The police] they crooked. I mean they try to do anything [to you]. I ain’t tryin’ to be prejudice[d] but I think the police don’t like black people. You know like all the crooked cops always be in the ghettos, where all the black people at and they try to get as many black people off the street as they can” (p. 85, brackets in original). 

The Importance, and Lack, of Negative Evidence

There are two sides of discrimination: prejudicial treatment, or being discriminated against, and preferential treatment, or being discriminated in favor of. As reviewed above, statistics suggest that police are discriminating against Blacks, i.e. in favor of Whites, which is confirmed by the available ethnographic evidence. However, there are two major limitations of the ethnographic literature on racially-biased experiences with policing.

Most ethnographies on this topic are from the perspective of Blacks and focus on what Lewis and Lewis (1980) refer to as “positive evidence”: events that happened. An empirical example of positive evidence is a police officer arresting a Black dealer; a subjective example is a Black dealer interpreting that action as race-based prejudicial treatment. Relatively few ethnographic studies of police discrimination are from the perspective of Whites (but, see, e.g., Brunson and Weitzer 2009; Carr et al. 2007; Duneier 1999; Mohamed and Fritsvold 2010; Weitzer 1999, 2000). From an analytic standpoint, the problem with this disproportionality is it entails prioritizing positive evidence over the other form: “negative evidence,” or “the significance of a thing’s absence” (Lewis and Lewis 1980:545).

Positive evidence and negative evidence are equally important components of scientific inquiry because each has unique power in the verification and falsification of theory. As Popper (2002 [1959]) explains, a theory should not only predict what will occur (positive evidence) but also predict what will not (negative evidence). Both forms of evidence have a long and important history in the study of crime and control. For instance, a basic notion in criminology is that there are two types of theories: those seeking to explain why crime does happen (positive evidence) and those seeking to explain why it does not (negative evidence).

Non-events, i.e. what could have occurred but did not, are what Lewis and Lewis (1980) label “Type I” negative evidence. Perhaps a reason why few ethnographers have examined discriminatory policing from the perspective of Whites is it often entails recording and analyzing non-occurrences. Empirical and subjective examples of such non-events are, respectively, a police officer not arresting a White dealer who, in turn, does not interpret this as race-based preferential treatment. These are examples of negative evidence that ethnographers of police discrimination could collect and analyze, though few have actually done so.

Studying non-events is all the more difficult because of another form of negative evidence: participants’ non-reporting of (non-)events, of which there are three types (Lewis and Lewis 1980). “Type II” is defined as non-reporting due to a participant not knowing of an occurrence. For instance, a dealer may not know that he or she was reported to the police and thus not report this during an interview. “Type III” is non-reporting due to wanting to keep an event secret. A dealer, for example, may not report being apprehended by the police because it is stigmatizing. And, “Type IV” is non-reporting of an event because it is so commonplace that it is overlooked. Goffman’s (1963) work on impression management exemplifies research on the complexity of many taken-for-granted aspects of social life. 

A Case Study in Negative Evidence

To briefly recap, ethnographies of discriminatory policing are mostly from the perspective of Blacks and focus on positive evidence, specifically empirical experiences with and subjective interpretations of being discriminated against by police. Far fewer of these ethnographies are from the perspective of Whites, which is perhaps because such research has more to do with collecting information on events that did not happen.

For analytic reasons, and perhaps also ethical ones,[2] current and future ethnographers should shift some of their focus from Blacks to Whites. To illustrate the benefits and difficulties involved in conducting an ethnography of police discrimination from the perspective of Whites, I now turn to substantive and methodological lessons from my study of 30 young, middle-class drug dealers.

They mostly sold marijuana, though some distributed cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, and other drugs; none sold crack or heroin. All of these individuals are White (except for one who is half Asian) and, at the time of the study, were 18 to 23 years of age, and grew up in middle-class suburbia. About half the participants were dealing at the time of the interview, though I also sampled former dealers in order to explore the factors promoting desistance.

The data largely consist of information gleaned from interviews with the 30 dealers, though their firsthand insights are supplemented with my independent observations in the field. Eighteen of the subjects were my friends from high school or college. To obtain their participation, I simply asked them if they would do me a favor by letting me interview them about their business. None of these individuals was paid for participation. The other twelve participants were friends-of-friends recruited into the study by two of the initial participants. A little more than half of these snowball recruits were paid $25 for their participation, but the others agreed to do so purely as a favor.

The majority of participants lived and plied their trade in a suburban town in Georgia, which I refer to as Peachville. The town typifies suburban America with subdivision after subdivision interspersed by a few shopping centers. Its demographic makeup also matches that of the stereotypical suburb. At the time of the study, its population of about twenty thousand people was ninety percent White, ninety percent of adults had at least a high school degree, and the median yearly household income was almost $70,000.

The interviews followed a semi-structured but open-ended protocol, and usually took about an hour to complete. Though the contours of individual interviews varied, each addressed the project’s pre-identified focal topics: motivation to sell; how it was done; the problems they faced; and, for those who had already quit selling, the reasons for desisting. Questions prompted participants to describe specific events rather than give general descriptions. As relates to policing, I asked participants questions about whether they had encounters with officers and, if they did, to describe the events; if they were worried about getting into legal trouble; and, what they did, if anything, to avoid this problem.

As with any self-report study, it is possible that some participants may have intentionally or unintentionally distorted the truth. As this would be negative evidence, I say more about it below. For now, however, note that to minimize this problem I made them aware of their rights as research participants, such as confidentiality and their right to refuse answering any question. Also, when participants made comments that seemed inconsistent with the truth (based on what I had observed or other participants had said), I probed for details to reveal and, if possible, resolve inconsistencies.

All interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. With the aid of NVivo 9, a qualitative software package, I coded the transcripts with identification tags corresponding to relevant research issues. The tags permitted me to retrieve information about various predetermined research interests. The first set of tags were broad and focused on general issues, such as “Motivation to Sell”, “Obtaining a Supply”, “Selling to Customers”, “Legal Trouble”, “Parental Trouble”, “Victimization”, “Social Control”, and “Desistance.” Then I sifted through the broad tags and, for each issue, created narrower categories in order to capture subtler distinctions recognized by the dealers themselves and prior research as being relevant. In this paper, I focus on findings related to legal trouble. 

Ethnographic Evidence of Police Discrimination in favor of Whites

In what follows, the first subsection briefly outlines some of the study’s key findings regarding the dealers’ empirical experiences with police, which is mostly a matter of Type I negative evidence (non-events).[3] The second subsection considerers the dealers’ interpretations of what led to or prevented apprehension, which partially relates to Types II-IV negative evidence (non-reporting). 

White Dealers’ (Non-)Experiences With Police

Drug distribution was fairly common in Peachville, but you would not be able to tell so from official statistics. Twenty-seven of the thirty dealers reported no contact with police related to drug distribution. As one seller, Jeff, said: “It’s not very risky. I know people who’ve done it for years and not had any kinds of run-ins. As far as something serious like a run-in with the cops or anything is really few and far between, especially if you exercise some sort of caution.”

Part of why the participants perceived dealing to be low risk is the Peachville police displayed little apparent interest in proactive drug control. No participant, nor I, knew of a time that the police raided a home, conducted an undercover sting, engaged in hotspot policing, or made a street sweep. Rather, the visible role of police in the community was largely restricted to enforcing traffic laws and directing traffic in and out of busy parking lots. The official statistics support this claim, as in Peachville there were no more than a few arrests for drug distribution annually (Snyder and Mulako-Wangota 2015).[4]

While the sellers’ odds of being caught by the police were perceptually and objectively low, they were concerned about this happening. In Jim’s words: “I get scared. I get really scared. If I get busted I’m fucked. I feel paranoia and fear on a heavy daily basis.”

The participants thought that apprehension was most likely to follow from a traffic stop. As Christian commented, “I had my stash right behind me in my truck. … I knew if I ever got pulled over I was done pretty much.” Dealers also figured that they could get caught if a customer was apprehended and then turned into an informant. While an exceedingly rare occurrence, I happened to observe such an incident: after neighbors reported a group of teenagers smoking marijuana in one of the youngster’s backyard, the police arrived at the home, questioned the adolescents for a short while, and eventually convinced one of them to give up the phone number of the dealer in exchange for allowing everyone present to go free.

Ninety percent of the dealers never had trouble with police, which also means ten percent did. Each of these three individuals had a single encounter with the police, all of which resulted from a traffic violation. Just one of these incidents occurred in Peachville, which also happens to be the only encounter not to result in the dealer being arrested. Long story short, the officer was unable to locate the marijuana, which the suspect had adeptly concealed within the vehicle.

Two dealers were arrested, but even they are exceptions that prove the general rule—Whites face less legal risk. After being apprehended in a distant rural area, the formal charges were ultimately dropped due, in part, to hiring savvy lawyers. Also, and in stark contrast to Brunson’s (2007) participants, the police did not kick, choke, or otherwise rough up the White dealers in the course of arresting them.

Three reported incidents, plus one observed incident; that is the total number of police-citizen encounters I came across. On the one hand, four incidents is not an inconsequential number. After all, there are serious potential consequences of being arrested for drug distribution. On the other hand, this level of risk is almost nothing in comparison to that faced by many Black dealers operating in urban, disadvantaged communities.

It should not be understated that 27 of the 30 dealers had no contact with police, and that even the three dealers who did had only one run-in each. The many police-related occurrences that did not happen to the participants, but could have, illustrate how the War on Drugs is fought differently across racial groups. 

White Dealers’ Interpretations of (Non-)Experiences with Police

A separate issue from whether and how dealers were caught by police is the dealers’ interpretation of their run-ins, or lack thereof, with police. According to participants, a seller’s apprehension risk was a function of unsafe business practices, bad luck, and probability over the long run. Unsafe business practices include selling to unknown persons or at conspicuous places, and—as relates to having drugs in one’s vehicle—not obeying traffic laws, taking too many trips, or being in possession of an unnecessarily large quantity. So to avoid apprehension, the dealers often chose not to do such things.

However, the dealers thought that abstaining from unsafe practices did not guarantee their safety because bad luck could strike. They also figured that while they had a low probability of being caught, this probability was not equivalent to zero. Based on their understanding of statistics, these dealers reasoned that the longer they sold drugs and the more sales they made, the likelier was apprehension by the cops. Indeed, that is a big reason why many of the dealers eventually terminated their business. As Clay explained, “I feel everyone that sells, if you continue, it’s just inevitable that you’re going to get caught.”

The participants took active steps to avoid apprehension, but so too do Black dealers (see, e.g., Jacobs 1999). It follows that the different apprehension rate of White and Black dealers is unlikely to be fully explained by the extent to which they take preventive measures. So what explains the difference?

A potential reason why White dealers are less likely than their Black counterparts to be arrested is that the police engage in racial discrimination. While prior quantitative and ethnographic research suggests this is true, it was not an explanation at the forefront of participants’ minds. When participants were asked to explain how they avoided legal trouble, they did not reference their race. Nor did the three dealers who had contact with police refer to their race as a contributing element. Apparently, they did not think being White had anything to do with the matter. Put it this way: no participant said anything to the effect of “I think the police like White people” (cf. Brunson 2007).

To be clear, the 30 dealers did not state that race is unrelated to law enforcement. Rather, when discussing legal risk, they did not think to mention race at all. Why not?

One possible reason is that the participants simply thought race is irrelevant and so not worth mentioning. Because interpretation is a subjective experience, not interpreting an empirical event or non-event (e.g., encountering police) as representative of something (e.g., discrimination) is its own kind of non-event. Thus, if the dealers did not think race affected their legal risk, this non-interpretation is a sort of Type I negative evidence.

Such a finding would not be a dead-end, as it raises the question of why White dealers do not see race as affecting trouble with police. How could it be that Blacks but not Whites think race affects criminal justice? Generally, at least, the dealers knew about racial discrimination in the U.S., so I do not think that their non-mentioning of race is simply a non-event (Type I negative evidence) or due to unawareness (Type II negative evidence). Another possibility why the participants did not cite being White as mitigating legal risk is that they wanted to keep this secret (Type III negative evidence). But because we all shared a common cultural and demographic background, I cannot see any obvious reason why, for this particular topic, they would lie to me by omission.

Yet also because of our shared background, I have some firsthand insight into what I think is the most likely cause of the non-mentioning: Type IV negative evidence, or non-reporting due to an event being so ordinary to become overlooked. Discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officials against Blacks is relatively commonplace. By logical extension, it is also true that police discrimination in favor of Whites is relatively commonplace. But Whites knowing that Blacks are discriminated against does not guarantee that they will recognize being discriminated in favor of. I think this is because whereas police officers’ prejudicial treatment of Blacks involves an event (e.g., being unduly stopped, investigated, and arrested), their preferential treatment of Whites is a non-event (e.g., not being stopped at all). Non-events, by their very nature, are harder to observe and, therefore, harder to be conscious of. This is all the more true when Whites live in homogenous communities because therein treatment of Blacks is less likely to be witnessed firsthand.

The dealers may not have cited being White as affecting legal risk because where they lived race-based preferential treatment by police was ubiquitous. Almost everyone they knew was like them: White. Therefore, the ever-present benefits of being White were hard to notice, and the costs of being Black were hardly seen at all. So when I asked participants what affects the odds of apprehension, they did not think to mention their race though it may have been in their back of mind. 

Turning Negative Evidence Into a Positive

Quantitative studies show that relative to Whites, Blacks are subjected to more policing. The ethnographic evidence supports this finding, but this body of work is disproportionately focused on Blacks’ experiences with and interpretations of discriminatory policing (i.e., positive data). This paper’s purpose has been to press upon ethnographers another fruitful way to study discriminatory policing: focus on Whites and negative evidence. To illustrate what such a study would look like, I reviewed findings from my study of 30 White dealers. These offenders had few run-ins with police, and they did not explain their experiences as a consequence of discriminatory policing.

Non-Events are Data

Given my contention that there is much to learn about discriminatory policing by studying negative evidence among Whites, it is worth trying to think through why few ethnographers have done so. I suspect the reason is at least partially attributable to a misguided practical concern. Unlike quantitative research, which requires comparing outcomes across groups, ethnographers can more easily “get away with” studying just one group, such as a sample of only Blacks or Whites. This is not necessarily an analytic problem; it depends on the research goal. But even if focusing entirely or unevenly on one group is an analytic problem, an ethnographer may have little choice but to do so due to constraints on time, funds, or another practical matter. Thus, the reality of conducting ethnography often entails deciding, “If I have to choose between groups, which one should I study?”

In my estimation, the answer tends to push ethnographers toward whichever group is thought to have more occurrences. Leaving aside other issues (e.g., access), a major consideration is whether studying one group or another will produce more data. For example, if an ethnographer wants to study subjection to police discrimination, and knows from quantitative research that 1 in 3 Blacks but only 1 in 100 Whites reported such an experience, it may seem more rational to collect data from Blacks than Whites. To a certain extent that makes sense. Yet the problem with such a rationale is that, in fact, it does not entail choosing the group with “more data” so much as it does prioritizing positive data over negative data. From an analytic standpoint, it is as important to study why something does not occur as why it does (Lewis and Lewis 1980; Popper 2002 [1959]). Therefore, a goal of ethnographers should be to give equal attention to occurrences (positive evidence) and non-occurrences (Type I negative evidence) of empirical and interpreted racial discrimination by police. 

Asking About Specific Topics vs. Presenting Leading Questions

A second goal for future research should be to overcome participants’ non-reporting of events. For a final time, allow me to remind you that Type II non-reporting is due to a participant not knowing of an occurrence; Type III is due to a participant wanting to keep an event unknown; and, Type IV is due to the event being so commonplace as to become virtually invisible to a subject. Analytically speaking, there is potential pay dirt in finding out what participants do not know, want to keep secret, and are unconscious of. By definition, uncovering secrets is a matter of ethnographers building rapport with subjects, though what exactly builds rapport is a matter of debate (see, e.g., Bernasco 2010).

One way ethnographers shed light on negative evidence is by asking good questions of participants. But that is far easier said than done. Perhaps the most pressing problem is walking the fine line between asking about specific topics and presenting leading questions.[5] Take my study of White dealers as an example. As mentioned above, my interviews followed a semi-structured but open-ended protocol. In developing the protocol, I had to find a balance between its semi-structured and open-ended components. A benefit of making the protocol semi-structured is it protects against forgetting to cover pre-identified central topics (e.g., legal trouble) during any given interview. A benefit of making the protocol open-ended is it allows participants to speak at length about topics of interest: what happened (positive evidence), what did not (negative evidence), and why (positive evidence). Yet a drawback of this open-ended approach is that certain topics may go totally undiscussed, such as whether being White affected the risk of legal trouble.

To counter the potential for non-coverage, an ethnographer can further structure the interview protocol, but this is problematic in its own ways. One potential issue is that as an ethnographer asks increasingly specific questions, there is an increased risk of participants engaging in post hoc sense-making. For example, it may never consciously occur to dealers that being White affects their legal risk, but I suspect they could nonetheless speak about this issue at great length if asked about it—which I did not. Such responses could very well be interesting and insightful, but whether that is the case depends on the research goal. If the goal is to better understand how persons actually go about living and making sense of their daily life, then it may be better to keep the protocol less structured.

Such advice should not be adopted indiscriminately; again, what is best depends on the purpose of the research. To illustrate this point, first note that two recent studies have explored the world of young, White, middle-class drug dealers: namely, Mohamed and Fritsvold (2010) and my own, which, I should mention, has also involved collaboration with Richard Wright. Participants in both studies had close to no encounters with police related to drug distribution, and the few dealers who did escaped with relative impunity. Both sets of researchers interpret these non-events as evidence that the War on Drugs is a racially biased battle against Blacks, i.e. in favor of Whites. Yet none of the dealers in these studies, except for Ann (quoted in the next subsection), specifically mentioned race as a factor affecting legal risk. Similar to my interview procedure, Mohamed and Fritsvold did not “specifically ask [their participants] about race because [they] wanted to consider themselves and their actions in their own terms” (Mohamed, 2015).

Given the methodological and substantive parallels between these two studies, it seems advisable that in the future, researchers should go ahead and pose the question to White dealers: How, if at all, does your race affect your legal risk? Though greater structuring of an interview may produce post hoc sense-making, it is worth the risk because a pointed question is likely to produce some new insights into what White dealers think about race, policing, and the criminal justice system broadly. 

Going Beyond the Data for the Sake of Future Research

If I had pressed the dealers to reflect on whether and how their race affected their legal risk, what might they have said? Below, I identify four possible answers based on prior research and my understanding of the dealers. To be clear, what follows is informed speculation. I do not know if my assessments are valid, much less generalizable to other dealer populations. However, I offer these thoughts as a starting point for consideration in future research.

The simplest possible response of the dealers is something like “Being White doesn’t matter because police don’t engage in racial discrimination.” I think this was unlikely to have been uttered because the participants were generally aware of police discrimination against Blacks, even if they did not see the immediate relevance to their own life. Nonetheless, such a response is a possibility and, therefore, should not be dismissed out of hand.  

A second potential response is “Yes, being White makes it safer for me to sell than were I Black. After all, Black people are discriminated against by the police.” No participant of mine said such, but it was mentioned by a White dealer, Ann, interviewed by Mohamed and Fritsvold (2010). When discussing why her drug dealer-friend escaped arrest despite being in an officer’s hands, Ann suggested it had to do with him being a “[n]ice little clean cut white kid” (p. 155).

The third potential response is more nuanced: “Black people are discriminated against by the police, but there is so little policing in Peachville that I do not think being White matters.” For instance, Weitzer (1999) found that two-thirds of Whites in a largely White community “believed that police do not stop people in the neighborhood without good reason”; and, “[h]alf qualified this by saying that they have never seen or heard about police stopping anyone in the neighborhood, or that the police are so seldom in the neighborhood that they had little opportunity to stop anyone” (p. 828-9; see also Brunson and Wetizer, 2000; Weitzer 2000).

Peachville was more or less free of any tangible police presence, so one could argue that there was little opportunity for the police to discriminate on the basis of race (see also Weitzer, 1999). Policing was almost entirely reactive, with the exception of traffic stops. Indeed, the most visible task undertaken by the police was directing traffic in and out of parking lots at church gatherings and sporting events. In this community, adults and youngsters alike did not worry about being hassled by the cops.

The observation that Peachville was unpoliced, relatively speaking, raises a follow-up question: Why? Though I think the following is unlikely, the dealers could have said this was a manifestation of police discrimination against Blacks, i.e. in favor of Whites. Instead, I think they most likely would have referred to the widespread perception that the town is free of serious crime, especially serious violent crime, and that this precludes the need for a highly visible police presence. For instance, from 1998 to 2002, which is when most of the participants were in high school selling drugs, there were no homicides in Peachville but 722 in its parent city, Atlanta.

That idea is potentially related to a fourth possible response: “Blacks receive more attention from the police than Whites, but that’s because they commit more serious crime.” In other words, some of the White dealers may have reckoned that the color of their skin repels police attention, but only because “Whites aren’t violent like Blacks” or a similar racial stereotype. For instance, some police and civilians explain the disproportionate arrest rate of Blacks as due to their disproportionate involvement in serious crime (see Harris, 2007; Weitzer, 2000).

Evidence that at least some White dealers may have arrived at this final explanation is derived from their interpretations of victimization. Among the 30 persons I interviewed, there were hundreds of victimization experiences. The dealers were victimized by Whites and Blacks, but they had a different response to intraracial and interracial offenses. When victimized by a Black person, some victims attributed the offense to the victimizer’s race. Reflecting on a rip-off, for instance, Jason said: “You don’t deal with Black guys. You do not fucking deal with niggers—sorry, excuse the fucking racist term—’cause they’re looking to fuck over the little White kid.” Yet when dealers were victimized by a White person—a far more common event—the offense was explained without reference to race. What explains the difference? One answer is that at least some of the dealers stereotyped Blacks but not Whites as prone to serious crime.

Before closing, I would be remiss not to make explicit that my participants’ limited interaction with police could be unrelated to them being White. Maybe the pattern was due to the suburban location or social class of their community (see Weitzer 1999). Or maybe it had to do with how they dressed (see Brunson and Weitzer, 2009). Or maybe it was because violence was rare among them (see Jacques and Wright, 2015). Or maybe it had to do with them largely selling only to friends, friends-of-friends, and colleagues (ibid.). Ethnographers could explore these possibilities and others by seeking out otherwise similar cases (Small 2009). For instance, they could attempt to study Black dealers living in a largely Black, middle-class, safe community (see, e.g., Patillo-McCoy 1999). Or, researchers could locate Black dealers living in a community like those of my White participants to see whether and how their experiences differ within the same social context.

That idea brings up another clarifying point: while this article has referred to Whites and Blacks in very broad terms, there may be more variation within these groups than between them. At the outset of this paper, I asserted that ethnographic research on discriminatory policing has been disproportionately from the perspective of Blacks. It is more accurate, however, to state that ethnographic research on discriminatory policing has been disproportionately from the perspective of Blacks who interpret themselves as experiencing this problem. If, for instance, 37% of Blacks report being discriminated against by police, then this means almost twice as many Blacks did not have such an experience. It is important to learn why not. Whether among Blacks, Whites, or members of any racial/ethnic groups, these sorts of non-events hold the potential to inform academic understanding of what does occur.


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[1] For simplicity’s sake, I will focus entirely on Blacks and Whites in this paper. The study of other racial and ethnic groups is important, too, of course (see, e.g., Kubrin, Zatz, and Martinez 2012; Solis, Portillos, and Brunson 2009).

[2] There are “too few” studies from an ethical standpoint in that the disproportionality may inadvertently make crime appear to be more of a Black phenomenon than it is in fact. For further details on this point, see Jacques and Wright (2010) as well as Sutherland (1940).

[3] For further details about the dealers’ legal trouble and world more broadly, see Jacques and Wright (2015).

[4] I have not provided a full reference for the source information on the town’s statistics to help protect the participants’ confidentiality.

[5] Another difficulty arises when an ethnographer is from the same subculture of the participants, as I was with mine. The problem with that social position is it may make it harder for the researcher to see or hear some things that are clearly discernible to outsiders. Then again, this problem is not unique to ethnographers. Researchers of every stripe are “guilty” of non-reporting, too. Lewis and Lewis (1980) outline four types of researcher non-reporting, one of which is also done by subjects. Like participants, researchers may not report something due to an event’s commonness making it virtually invisible (Type IV). Additionally, Type V is a researcher’s non-reporting of an event due to his or her idea set. A researcher, for instance, may think it is by definition impossible for a Black officer to discriminate against a Black person and therefore pay no attention to intraracial encounters. Type VI is a researcher’s non-reporting due to his or her impression that specific incidents are irrelevant or unwarrantably detrimental to an analysis. An illustrative case would be a researcher who observes but does not record positive interactions between police and civilians due to thinking such instances do not inform the study. And, Type VII is a researcher’s non-reporting of an event for non-analytic reasons. An example of this is omitting an occurrence, or a non-occurrence, because its inclusion could damage one’s theory. While it may not always be “convenient” or obvious how to do so, ethnographers can improve understanding by recognizing and combating the propensity of their colleagues and, especially, of themselves to engage in these four types of non-reporting (Duneier 2011).


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