Rationalizing Racial Oppression: How the Right Misuses Crime Data to Justify Unequal Policing

It is understandable that honest and decent people may disagree about the circumstances surrounding the arrest last week of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge. For some, Gates was to blame for what happened. He became belligerent with Sgt James Crowley, and thus precipitated his arrest on charges of disorderly conduct. Others point out that being belligerent to an officer does not meet the legal definition of the charge in question, according to the state’s own written statute, and multiple court opinions, and to some, they suggest–as have I–that Crowley, though no overt racist, may have responded to Gates’s anger in a way he would not have had Gates been white.

But however much honest people can disagree, some seem intent on using the incident–and President Obama’s claim that the police acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates (a true statement, given the actual wording of the law, which Gates clearly did not violate)–to make the ultimate racist argument. And by that, I mean the kind of argument that can serve to justify widespread mistreatment of African American peoples, and is used by overt racists to justify their own hatreds, fears and contempt for black folks: namely, that since blacks have higher crime rates than whites, unequal treatment at the hands of cops is simply something to which black individuals–no matter their own criminality–will simply have to get used to.

This past week, the National Review online–the web version of a magazine started by pro-segregationist conservatives like William F. Buckley–ran two such columns: one by syndicated columnist, Mona Charen, and the other by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute. According to Charen, while Obama’s claim that blacks and Latinos have historically been subjected to unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement is “not quite” a fact, she claims that to whatever extent it has happened occasionally, we must remember, “Blacks and Hispanics also commit a disproportionately high percentage of crimes.” MacDonald goes ever further, trotting out statistics that she feels demonstrate the inherent fairness of police, given widespread black lawbreaking.

First, MacDonald notes, when it comes to racial profiling, it isn’t happening. This she claims because, according to data from 2005, as reported by motorists themselves in a large national survey, virtually identical proportions of white, black, and Hispanic drivers report being stopped by the police. In other words, there can be no profiling unless blacks are being stopped at a higher rate than whites. But this claim is disingenuous on two levels. First, because it ignores the fact that according to the same report MacDonald cites, and those going back several years, police are much more likely–on the order of 2-3 times as likely–to physically search blacks, once stopped, than they are to search whites. And this is true, even though blacks, when searched, are less likely to actually have drugs or other contraband on them than whites are. Indeed, as for drugs, data show that usage rates are roughly equal between whites and blacks: in some years whites have slightly higher rates of usage, thus possession, while in other years, blacks have slightly higher rates (1). In any case, there is no logical reason for police to assume blacks are significantly more likely, if at all more likely, to have such items on them, given the evidence, and yet they apparently do.

Secondly, the fact that blacks and whites are stopped in roughly the same percentages by law enforcement, though it may seem to indicate parity of treatment, actually doesn’t, for one very important reason: namely, because African Americans, on average, drive 2200 fewer miles per year, per capita, than whites. In other words, whites, collectively have millions more hours and miles on the road and thus, opportunities to be stopped than blacks (2). Thus, given the greater opportunity for whites to be stopped, and the lesser opportunity for blacks to be stopped, the fact that the two groups are stopped at the same rate–especially given the evidence that there is no substantial difference in driving behavior or moving violations which could justify the disparity (3)–suggests a substantial amount of unfair and unequal treatment meted out to black folks.

MacDonald then insists that whatever over-policing blacks may experience in urban areas is justified by black crime rates. In fact, she argues, if anything blacks are being under-policed, relative to their crime rates. To wit she claims:

“In the first three months of 2009, 52 percent of all people stopped for questioning by the police in New York City were black, though blacks are just 24 percent of the population. But according to the victims of and witnesses to crime, blacks commit about 68 percent of all violent crime in the city. Blacks commit 82 percent of all shootings and 72 percent of all robberies…”

Yet here too, MacDonald’s argument is a textbook example of intellectual dishonesty. Let’s examine why.

If New York police are stopping blacks and questioning them less often than violent crime data would seem to justify, why might this be? After all, there must be an explanation, right? So let’s think about the possibilities. I can imagine only three. Here they are:

1. The NYPD are so stupid and inept at law enforcement that they go and question white folks, even after witnesses and victims make it quite clear that they were victimized by black people. I’m guessing MacDonald doesn’t want to suggest this, and it seems pretty unlikely.

2. Police really want to question black people when told by victims and witnesses that it’s black people doing most of the crime, but because of political correctness, or perhaps the fear of Al Sharpton, they set aside their professional responsibilities and duties and just go out and question whites anyway. Given MacDonald’s respect for cops, I can’t imagine she would like this one much either.

Which leaves us with only one other possibility, and it’s one that completely eviscerates her bogus statistical inference above, Namely:

3. The violent crime rates are, and indeed violent crime itself is, totally unrelated to stop, frisk and question data. In other words, police are not investigating those serious crimes–the ones that blacks commit so disproportionately–by doing random stops and questionings. Thus, the fact that blacks are so much more likely to commit those kinds of crimes has no bearing on the stop data. The stops must be for other things–drug possession for instance–not for trying to solve already committed violent acts. Think about it: how likely is it that police would use random stops and questioning as a method for uncovering the identity of last night’s convenience store hold up man? In those cases, they are going to have more precise information to go on. So if blacks are being stopped less than their rates of offending would “justify” this must be because the stops are for other crimes, while for crimes like robbery or shootings, police are using much more detailed methods than just stopping people on the street and asking them questions.

And when it comes to the reasons for the random stops, friskings and questionings, the evidence indicates that the NYPD carries out such activities in a blatantly disparate fashion. For instance, according to a study from just a few years ago, cops in New York stop and frisk blacks at a rate that is almost five times as high as for whites. Even when you factor in the generally higher black crime rates in New York, and the racial demographics of the neighborhoods where the stops were made (since, after all, blacks should be expected to be most of the people stopped in black neighborhoods), the study found that blacks were still being stopped twice as often as random chance would have predicted, relative to whites. And the blacks who get stopped are considerably less likely than the whites they stop to actually have committed a crime. For every 4.6 stops of whites, police are able to make an arrest, while they have to stop 7.3 blacks before finding evidence of criminality (4). What does this suggest? Nothing to Heather MacDonald, apparently, but to honest people it says this: police are more likely, on the basis of unjustifiable suspicion, to stop blacks than whites, and they are uniquely bad at predicting black criminality.

MacDonald then says that since “black males between the ages of 18 and 24 commit homicide at ten times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined,” it only stands to reason that blacks will suffer disproportionate stoppage rates. But this too doesn’t follow: homicide is, statistically speaking, among the rarest of violent crimes, and hardly can be used to justify overall policing practices. The fact that blacks commit the offense at a much higher rate than whites (overall the rate differential is about 7:1), may sound scary, but with perhaps 7000 homicides committed by blacks each year, nationwide, and even if we assumed each murderer killed only one person (thus there would be about 7000 unique black murderers annually), this would still only represent about two-one-hundredths of one percent of the black population over the age of 12 (and thus eligible for consideration in crime data). How can such a small percentage of the black population be the basis for widespread over-policing, stops, searches and harassment? Not to mention, police do not investigate murder by simply stopping people randomly and frisking them in the hopes that they will stumble upon the perps. In homicide cases, they tend to narrow their searches considerably, meaning that the number of stops and searches that were part of homicide investigations (and therefore perhaps justified by disproportionate homicide rates among blacks) would, by necessity, be so low as to hardly budge the overall numbers suggesting over-policing of African Americans.

There are, of course, other problems inherent to Charen and MacDonald’s argument. Among them, to suggest that higher black crime rates justify unequal policing is to say that black people do not have the right, moral or legal, to be treated as individuals. Rather, we are obligated to view them all as potential criminals because of the actions of others in their community. Thus, no black person can complain about their encounters with cops, so long as other blacks are thuggin.’ This is essentially what Charen, for instance, claimed a decade ago, when Amadou Diallo was murdered by members of the NYPD Street Crimes Unit. Though Diallo had been unarmed and had posed no threat to the officers, Charen claimed that he had ultimately died “for the sins” of his black brethren in New York, who because of their crime rates, cause cops to operate on a hair trigger. That such arguments violate the supposedly deep-seated conservative principles of individualism and personal responsibility matters not, it seems to those who would make these kinds of arguments. That such a position could be used to justify virtually any depredation against black people–the suspension of due process rights, draconian curfews imposed only in their communities, preventative detention of random black males, perhaps even forced sterilization of black women–apparently gives the Charens and MacDonalds of the world no moment for pause.

But I doubt they would actually like where the underlying logic of their position leads. Indeed, if we are to use data to justify disparate treatment of this kind, we would need to go further than Charen or MacDonald would likely approve. For instance, whites have much higher rates, in all years, of drunk driving (5): so by the logic of Charen and MacDonald, police should put all their roadblocks and sobriety checkpoints in the suburbs and white rural areas, in order to catch the folks most likely to be guilty of a DWI. Or what about the serious corporate misconduct in which whites seem clearly to predominate? Will conservatives now call for affirmative action as a form of crime control in corporate America: after all, white men are demonstrating their ineptitude and even criminality repeatedly at the highest levels. Of course, they will do none of these things.

It is one thing, in the end, to argue that Henry Louis Gates was in the wrong, or to defend Sgt. James Crowley from charges of racism. It is another thing altogether to do what these two reactionary writers have done: to smear blacks as a group and to say, in effect, that they can be treated however we choose to treat them, all because of the actions of about 3% of African Americans who will commit some kind of violent crime in a given year.

And still, people like Charen and MacDonald wonder why black folks disrespect law enforcement, never stopping to think that such disrespect is the natural result of the very over-policing that the right seeks to rationalize and to which they would give license.


(1) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Various Years, 1999-2008, Results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, previously called Summary of Findings from the National Household Survey on Drug Use (Office of Applied Studies, Rockville, MD).

(2) Raphael, S. and M.A. Stoll. (2001). “Can Boosting MInority Car Ownership Rates Narrow Inter-racial Employment Gaps?” in W.G. Gale and J. Rothenberg Pack, eds. The Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, vol. 2. Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 99-145.

(3) Harris, David. (2002). Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Can’t Work. NY: New Press.

(4) Fagan, J. and G. Davies. (2000). “Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race and Disorder in New York City,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, 28, 457.

(5) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2002). National Vital Statistics Reports, vol. 50, no. 5, feb 12, also, CDC, 2002, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, “Unintentional Injuries/Violence, 2001, United States,” Youth 2001 Online)

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