Police, Prisons & The Color Of Crime

From the 2005 book, The Color of Crime:

America’s changing racial and ethnic makeup has played a role in the rise in incarceration. The number of Hispanic and non-citizen prisoners is rising faster than the overall prison population. In 2003, there were 4.4 times as many prisoners as in 1980, but the Hispanic prison population rose 10 fold.58 Between 1990 and 2003, the total number of prisoners rose by 90 percent while the number of noncitizens in prison increased 4.8 fold.59 This means that the number of Hispanic and non-citizen prisoners is rising at more than twice the rate of the total prison population. Figure 24 shows the racial composition of the prisoner population in 2003—black: 44.1 percent; white: 35.0 percent; Hispanic: 19.0 percent; other: 1.9 percent.60 Some experts worry that the growing number of crimes committed by youth gangs have contributed to the leveling out of crime rates, and that the problem will only get worse.61 As we saw earlier, immigrants and their children are the main source of new gang members. The experience of the past several decades tells us that putting more people in prison reduces crime. The cost, however, is very high. In inflation-adjusted dollars, in 2001 the US spent three times as much on prisons as it did in 1980. Other policing costs are also rising rapidly. Many of the one million or more immigrants who come to the United States every year are from population groups that raise crime rates rather than lower them. The result is more crime or higher costs to control crime—or both.
Why Study Race and Crime?
Why study racial differences in crime rates? Many Americans believe this can lead only to invidious comparisons and scapegoating. Others resist the idea that there are significant group differences in crime rates, and believe that even if there are differences, society is to blame for not treating people of all races equally. Some scholars even suggest it may be better for Americans to remain ignorant of certain realities about race.63 This view is both obscurantist and patronizing: who is to decide which are the truths that must be withheld? Society does not benefit when information is suppressed. Truth and knowledge are always better than falsehood and ignorance. This report takes no position on causes of group differences in crime rates, except to point out that the ones that are most commonly proposed—poverty, unemployment, lack of education—are not satisfactory. As for the reality of those differences, the evidence is overwhelming: Blacks are considerably more likely than any other group to commit crimes of virtually all kinds, while Asians are least likely. Whites and Hispanics have intermediate crime rates. There can be debate about the exact extent of the differences—the data do not make these calculations easy—but differences are a fact. These differences are far greater than some that have given rise to significant public initiatives. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and white household income is 60 percent higher than black household income. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to drop out of high school. Race differences of this kind have led to everything from affirmative action preferences to No Child Left Behind legislation. Americans are right to be concerned about these differences, but they are, relatively speaking, small. To repeat some of the more substantial differences in crime rates: Blacks are about eight times more likely than whites to commit murder, and 25 times more likely than Asians to do so. Blacks are 15 times more likely than whites to go to prison for robbery, and 50 times more likely than Asians. Crime reduction programs analogous to No Child Left Behind may or may not be practical, but no solutions will be found if we avert our eyes from these differences. A better understanding of the facts is important for other reasons. The evidence suggests that deeplyrooted assumptions about police bias are wrong. Many Americans believe that entire professions— police, prosecutors, judges—are systematically biased against minorities (critics usually have nothing to say about low incarceration rates for Asians, but if they were consistent they would argue that the police and the courts must be biased in favor of Asians). This is insulting and unfair. Not only does it reflect abiding prejudice against some of the most hard-working people in America, it leads to onerous anti-“racial profiling” regulations that require police to fill in detailed racial information about every traffic stop, stop-and-frisk, or search. Additional paperwork is a distraction from the job that really matters: stopping crime. Assumptions about police bias are especially common among minority groups that have the most to gain from good relations with the police. Blacks, in particular, are convinced of police “racism.” In extreme cases, this belief leads to murderous rampages like that of Brian Nichols with which this report begins. It is not an exaggeration to say that his victims might be alive today if the facts in this report were widely known. In countless less severe cases, a belief in police bias leads to suspicion, resentment, and lack of cooperation, all of which make it harder for the police to do their jobs, and more likely that minorities will suffer from crimes that could have been solved or prevented. How often do assumptions about police—and societal—racism so anger blacks that they go beyond lack of cooperation to crime itself? It is profoundly destructive for minorities to have exaggerated resentments toward the society in which they live. Uncritical repetition by whites of assertions about police bias only deepens these resentments. A proper understanding of crime rates also supports a common-sense understanding of race and is an antidote to hypocrisy. Americans do not know the exact statistics, but they know that whites (and Asians) are less likely than blacks to rob them. Even many people who insist that black arrest rates are bloated by police bias are careful to avoid certain neighborhoods. Group differences as great as those in this report are a reality that filters into public awareness even if the press seldom reports them. It is common to oppose publication of crime statistics for fear of creating “negative stereotypes,” but statistical differences are the basis for important policy decisions. If one airline were three times more likely than other airlines to be involved in fatal accidents, would it be reasonable to avoid it? If one brand of decongestant were twice as likely as another to have serious side effects, would the FDA be justified in investigating it? Many people pay for optional side airbags in automobiles. Does this cut the risk of death or injury in half? More than that? Less? People make choices, and risk affects their choices. If there are different risks associated with different groups of people it is legitimate to investigate and weigh those risks. Finally, immigration is rapidly changing the population of the United States. Thanks to immigration, Hispanics are now the nation’s largest minority group. Hispanics are one of the more crime-prone groups in America. They also have high rates of illegitimacy, school failure, poverty, welfare use, and teen pregnancy. Asians are lowest in all these categories. Is it wise for our immigration policies to ignore these differences?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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