Discussions of the relationship between blacks and the criminal justice system in this country too often grind to a halt as people slink down into their silos and arm themselves with their best rhetorical weapons — racial bias on one side and statistics in which minorities, particularly blacks, are overrepresented as criminals on the other.
What I find too often overlooked in this war of words is the intersection between the two positions, meaning the degree to which bias informs the statistics and vice versa.
The troubling association — in fact, overassociation — of blacks with criminality directly affects the way we think about both crime and blacks as a whole.
A damning report released by the Sentencing Project last week lays bare the bias and the interconnecting systemic structures that reinforce it and disproportionately affect African-Americans.
This is the kind of report that one really wants to publish in its totality, for its conclusion is such a powerful condemnation of the perversity of racial oppression. But alas, this being a newspaper column, that’s not possible. Still, allow me to present many of their findings:
• “Whites are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime.”
• “White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African-Americans by 20 percent to 30 percent.”
• “White Americans who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies — including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing — than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”
This association of crime with blacks has been noted by others. Lisa Bloom, in her book “Suspicion Nation,” points out: “While whites can and do commit a great deal of minor and major crimes, the race as a whole is never tainted by those acts. But when blacks violate the law, all members of the race are considered suspect.”
She further says: “The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American. When we think about crime, we ‘see black,’ even when it’s not present at all.”
As the Sentencing Project report makes clear, the entire government and media machinery is complicit in the distortion.
According to the report:
• “Whether acting on their own implicit biases or bowing to political exigency, policy makers have fused crime and race in their policy initiatives and statements. They have crafted harsh sentencing laws that impact all Americans and disproportionately incarcerate people of color.”
• “Many media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African-Americans and Latinos differently than whites — both quantitatively and qualitatively. Television news programs and newspapers overrepresent racial minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.”
• “Disparities in police stops, in prosecutorial charging, and in bail and sentencing decisions reveal that implicit racial bias has penetrated all corners of the criminal justice system.”
The effects of these perceptions and policies have been absolutely devastating for society in general and black people in particular. According to the report:
• “By increasing support for punitive policies, racial perceptions of crime have made sentencing more severe for all Americans. The United States now has the world’s highest imprisonment rate, with one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Racial perceptions of crime, combined with other factors, have led to the disparate punishment of people of color. Although blacks and Latinos together comprise just 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population.”
• “By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color, racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety. Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials. In 2013, over two-thirds of African-Americans saw the criminal justice system as biased against blacks, in contrast to one-quarter of whites. Crime policies that disproportionately target people of color can increase crime rates by concentrating the effects of criminal labeling and collateral consequences on racial minorities and by fostering a sense of legal immunity among whites.”
There is no way in this country to discuss crime statistics without including in that discussion the myriad ways in which those statistics are informed and influenced by the systemic effects of racial distortion.
Individual behavior is not the only component of the numbers; bias is the other.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times Sept. 7, 2014 under the title “Crime, Bias and Statistics“)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”