|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
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
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
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
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
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
be stopped by police than whites.
In mostly white parts of town, blacks are 2.25 times more likely to
stopped and searched on suspicion of weapons possession and three times more
likely on suspicion of having committed a violent crime, relative to
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 searches.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Interestingly, while black and Latino crime, as a share of all crime
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
to law enforcement), with Justice Department data on criminal victimization
(culled from victim reports, and which include crimes not reported
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
In 2001, for example, for all violent crimes, including simple assault,
blacks committed twenty-eight percent of the total, according to the
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
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
arrested, while for every 100 violent crimes committed by whites, about 26
were arrested, meaning that white offenders were about fifteen percent
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 prison population.
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,
between seventy percent and three-fourths of users, comprise less than ten
percent of those incarcerated for drugs.
In all, black drug users are nearly twenty times more likely than
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
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
The unequal prosecution and sentencing of drug offenders has been
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
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
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
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
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
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 justice treatment.
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 color.
Tim Wise is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections
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