Part I of this article appeared in the
May 5, 2005 issue of BC.
"It's the crime stupid!"
Thus read the first line of an e-mail I received a
few weeks ago.
This particular love note came from someone who had
run across an old article of mine in which I had discussed racism
in the criminal justice system: specifically the racially disparate
rates of incarceration for persons of color, over and above the
rates for whites.
In this one sentence, all the weight of white America's
racial anxiety and hostility was poured out into my web browser,
the implication being that there was no racism in the justice system,
but rather, that the position of African Americans within that system
was merely a function of disproportionate criminality. If blacks
would just straighten up, everything would be fine.
As with white America's denial of racism in labor
markets, the refusal to believe that bias plays a role in policing,
prosecution or incarceration is commonplace. Although white Americans
are more willing to accept the possibility of discrimination in
the justice system than in other areas – such as education, housing
or employment – still, two-thirds according to one poll insist that
blacks and Latinos are treated equally in terms of law enforcement
in their communities.
Would that the evidence supported such optimism. Fact
is, from the earliest stages of policing to the point of being jailed,
evidence of racial bias is clear and overwhelming.
According to a Justice Department report from February
2001, police are more than twice as likely to search vehicles driven
by blacks after pulling them over, even though whites, when searched,
are more than twice as likely to be in possession of illegal items,
such as narcotics. Latino drivers were between 2 and 2.26 times
more likely to be personally searched or to have their cars searched
by police, even though they are less likely than whites to use drugs
and thus possess them at any given moment.
In New York City, stop-and-frisk searches by police
highlight the unfair treatment to which people of color are subjected.
Even after controlling for differential crime rates and the population
demographics of a given neighborhood, black and Latino residents
of New York are far more likely to be stopped by police than whites.
In mostly white parts of town, blacks are 2.25 times
more likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of weapons possession
and three times more likely on suspicion of having committed a violent
crime, relative to their arrest rates for those crimes. In other
words, the fact that blacks have higher rates of offending in those
categories does not explain the higher stoppage rates. The above-mentioned
disproportions reflect the level of unequal treatment that remains
after factoring in all the non-racial reasons that could explain
In heavily black parts of town, one would obviously
expect most persons stopped by police to be black, as this would
merely reflect local population demographics and probable crime
rates in the area. But once again, even after controlling for those
factors, blacks in mostly African American neighborhoods are still
more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped by police on suspicion
of weapons possession or the commission of a violent crime.
Perhaps most telling, police appear more likely to
stop innocent blacks than whites. For every 4.6 whites stopped in
1997-1998, for example, police were able to make one arrest, meaning
that roughly 22 percent of the time their suspicions were justified.
Even this is not a very impressive percentage but it is far better
than that for blacks. Police had to stop 7.3 blacks before making
a single arrest, meaning that only 14 percent of the time was their
suspicion justified. In all, whites stopped were more likely to
actually be guilty of having committed a crime and yet the NYPD
continued to disproportionately stop people of color.
Bias hardly ends at the point of police arrest or
harassment, however. Black incarceration has exploded several times
over, even while black crime has plummeted in the past twenty years.
(And no, this is not because the incarceration itself has caused
the black crime rate to plummet: crime has dropped just as much
if not more in states with less punitive anti-crime tendencies).
Interestingly, while black and Latino crime, as a
share of all crime is hardly different than in 1964, the share of
persons incarcerated who are persons of color has risen from one-third
to two-thirds in that period, while the share who are white has
been cut in half.
Comparing crime data from the FBI (which includes
only those crimes reported to law enforcement), with Justice Department
data on criminal victimization (culled from victim reports, and
which include crimes not reported to police), makes clear that black
crime rates cannot explain the overrepresentation of African Americans
in the justice system.
Although black crime rates are higher than those for
whites (for reasons that studies indicate are due to socioeconomic
conditions disproportionately faced by blacks, like crowded housing,
extreme poverty, and community disintegration), there is still evidence
that blacks are arrested more often, and whites less often, than
would be expected based on rates of offending.
In 2001, for example, for all violent crimes, including
simple assault, blacks committed twenty-eight percent of the total,
according to the Justice Department. Yet, African Americans comprised
thirty-four percent of all persons arrested for those crimes that
year, meaning that blacks were arrested at a rate that was twenty
percent above their rate of offending. Indeed, if blacks and whites
had been arrested for these violent crimes at a
rate that was equal to their rate of committing them, tens of thousands
fewer blacks, and tens of thousands more whites would have been
arrested for violent crime in 2001.
Comparing racial arrest data with racial offending
data for 2001 reveals that for every 100 violent crimes committed
by blacks, roughly thirty were arrested, while for every 100 violent
crimes committed by whites, about 26 were arrested, meaning that
white offenders were about fifteen percent more likely to get away
with their offenses than black offenders.
In addition to black arrest rates being higher than
black offending rates would justify, there is also racial disparity
in terms of who gets imprisoned and who doesn't. In New York State,
according to one recent study, if blacks arrested were treated the
same as whites for the same crimes, with the same priors, in the
same jurisdictions, one-third of all blacks in the state sent to
jail or prison annually would have been spared such a sentence.
This amounts to nearly 4500 blacks sent to jail or prison each year
in New York who would not have been incarcerated had they merely
been white. In Pennsylvania, even when prior records and severity
of a given crime are the same, white male offenders between the
ages of 18-29 are thirty-eight percent less likely to be imprisoned
than similar black males.
Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested and
imprisoned than their crime rates would justify, but whites are
much less likely to wind up in prison despite their share of serious
crime. More than half of all violent crimes are committed by non-Hispanic
whites, but only a quarter of today's prison population is white,
according to the Justice Department. Blacks, on the other hand,
commit a little more than one-fourth of all violent crime (according
to victim recollections), but comprise nearly half the jail and
Racial bias seems especially evident in the case of
juvenile offenders. One study in Florida, for example, found that
even when prior records and severity of offense were taken into
consideration, equally criminal black and Latino youth were twice
as likely to be confined in a juvenile facility or transferred to
adult court for more serious disposition. Nationally, black youth
are forty-eight times more likely than whites to be incarcerated
for a first-time drug offense, even when all factors surrounding
the crime are the same.
Bias is especially evident with regard to non-violent,
drug related offenses. African Americans, though only thirteen percent
of drug users and sixteen percent of dealers, according to federal
data, comprise more than a third of all drug arrests, and when convicted
of low-level drug dealing, are considerably more likely to be sent
to prison and for longer sentences than comparable whites.
Although blacks and Latinos are ninety percent of
persons incarcerated nationally for drugs, they represent only twenty-three
percent of drug users, according to the most recent federal data.
Meanwhile, whites, who are between seventy percent and three-fourths
of users, comprise less than ten percent of those incarcerated for
In all, black drug users are nearly twenty times more
likely than anyone else to spend time in prison for their use, and
in fifteen states, the rate of black incarceration for drug offenses
is anywhere from 20-57 times greater than for whites, despite equal
or greater rates of drug law violations by whites. Amazingly, when
all other factors surrounding an arrest are the same, black cocaine
offenders are twice as likely to be sent to prison and will serve,
on average, forty months more than white offenders.
The unequal prosecution and sentencing of drug offenders
has been so severe that as many as a half-million blacks may have
been imprisoned since the late 1980s, above and beyond the numbers
one could have expected based on their rates of drug offenses.
Likewise, whites receive racial privilege in this
process, since our own criminality is less likely to result in punishment,
or even detection. Examining the magnitude of these privileges,
just with regard to the war on drugs is instructive.
In 2000, there were roughly 750,000 arrests for drug
possession in the U.S. If arrest rates had mirrored drug usage rates
for that year, roughly seventy-six percent of those busted would
have been non-Hispanic whites, while 13.5 percent would have been
black. This would have translated into roughly 570,000 whites and
100,000 blacks arrested for drug possession that year.
But in truth, the numbers looked nothing like this
at all. In 2000, approximately 260,000 African Americans were busted
for possession: 2.6 times more than the number of blacks who would
have been arrested had arrest rates followed usage rates. Although
data indicates that whites were a little over 64 percent of all
persons arrested for drugs in 2000, this figure obscures the fact
that those whom the government classifies as "Hispanic"
are rolled in with whites for the purpose of state level drug arrest
figures, meaning that the arrest rate for persons typically viewed
as "white" (at least by other whites) is far lower.
Once Hispanic whites are excluded from drug arrest
figures for whites as a whole, even using a conservative methodology,
there were no more than 325,000 possession arrests for whites in
2000: this represents a quarter-million fewer whites arrested than
would have been the case had arrest rates mirrored usage rates.
That's a quarter-million whites able to blaze up or
snort coke in their suburban homes, office suites, dorm rooms or
fraternity houses, safe and secure in the knowledge that the drug
warriors will not likely be dropping by for a visit.
Interestingly, even if whites do get busted, and go
to jail for a drug offense, their future prospects will remain far
brighter than those for the average black man in America. As one
recent study in Milwaukee discovered, when equally qualified white
and black men are sent out to look for jobs, and half of each group
claim to have served eighteen months in prison for possession of
drugs with intent to distribute (while the other half of each group
claim to have no criminal record), those whites who claim to have
done time are slightly more likely to get a callback for an interview
than blacks who claim to be crime-free.
And thus the cycle perpetuates itself, with worse
job prospects only increasing the likelihood of criminal behavior,
which will then be used to" justify" harsher criminal
While it's true that the left has often made a mess
of the case for racism in the justice system - for example, by fuming
that blacks are only twelve percent of the population, and yet represent
roughly half of all persons incarcerated (a point that means nothing,
since incarceration would logically mirror crime rates, not population
demographics) - the fact remains that even with regard to actual
offending rates, especially for drugs, blacks are over-arrested,
over-prosecuted and over-incarcerated.
In other words, it isn't the crime stupid; it's the
Tim Wise is the author of two new books: White
Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull
Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in
Black and White (Routledge, 2005). Footnotes for this article
can be obtained from the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His website is www.timwise.org.