Like many who heard it, I was powerfully impressed by Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia this week. But I found the speech unsatisfying, because it all but ignores the issue that is central to racial division in twenty-first-century America: crime and criminal punishment.
In his clearest reference to that subject, Obama was guilty of either fuzzy thinking or misplaced political correctness. He used his grandmother’s “fear of black men who passed by her on the street” as an example of racism. It isn’t.
By my calculations, the black murder rate in 2006 stood at 23.7 per 100,000. The white murder rate stood at 3.1. (The links to the relevant sources of data are here and here. I allocated the cases in which the race of the offender is unknown proportionately to the relevant racial groups, as is customary in discussions of these data.) The belief that one of those two groups poses a greater risk of criminal violence is not racist; it’s rational—just as it’s rational to believe that a man of any race poses a greater risk than a woman: the male and female murder rates in 2006 were 10.7 and 1.0. The belief that race and sex have nothing to do with the risk of violent crime isn’t enlightened or virtuous. It’s just wrong.
While white fears of black crime are more reasonable than Obama admits, black rage at a discriminatory justice system is more justified than most whites understand. According to the best available data, blacks are 20% more likely than whites to use illegal drugs. But blacks are an incredible thirteen times more likely to be imprisoned for drug crime. (Data source here). In effect, Americans live under two sets of drug laws: the forgiving set of rules that mostly white suburbanites know, and the unfathomably severe rules that govern urban blacks.
If drug crime is overpunished in black neighborhoods, violent crime is underpunished. Nationwide, police clear nearly 60% of violent crimes (meaning, they arrest the likely offender) in nearly all-white small towns and rural areas. In large cities, police clear fewer than one-third of violent crimes. (Data source here). Race-specific data are unavailable, but it’s a very good bet that black neighborhoods in every major city have clearance rates far below one-third, and most white neighborhoods see rates that are much higher. The bottom line is as simple as it is awful: When whites are robbed, raped, beaten, and killed, their victimizers are usually punished. When the same crimes happen to blacks, the usual result is: nothing. No arrest, no prosecution, no conviction. That is one reason why black neighborhoods are so much more violent than white ones.
In other words, the kinds of criminal punishment that do the most good are undersupplied in black America, and the kinds that do the LEAST good—so far as I know, there is no evidence that the level of drug punishment has any appreciable effect on the level of drug crime—are oversupplied. African Americans live with the worst of both worlds: unfathomably high crime rates, coupled with truly horrifying levels of criminal punishment.
Why? I’ve tried in this draft article to take a stab at answering that question. But for now, suffice it to say that two points are key—and neither of them flows from white racism. First, high-crime city neighborhoods are seriously underpoliced. One of the key lessons of the Iraq surge is that putting more boots on violent ground tends to reduce the violence. The same lesson applies in American cities, but for the most part, the lesson hasn’t been learned. For reasons that mystify me, the same state and federal governments that shower money on urban school systems give nearly nothing to urban police forces. That gets it backward: the correlation between more money and better schools is weak at best; the correlation between more cops and less crime is very strong.
Overstretched big-city police forces tend to make lots of drug arrests, because those arrests are easy to make—and too few arrests for violent crimes, which require more manpower to investigate. Over time, those police forces have come to see drug punishment as a substitute for punishing violent crime. As the crime statistics of the last generation show, that substitution doesn’t work.
The second point is historical. Criminal justice in the United States used to be an exercise in local self-government. That is much less true today. Police officers used to live on the same streets they patrolled—which almost never happens today. Local district attorneys in metropolitan counties were elected by the votes of the urban working class, the same voters who were most often victimized by street crime, and whose sons were most often prosecuted for it. Today, suburban votes count for much more. Locally selected juries used to decide nearly half of all felony cases; today, the analogous figure is 5%. On every front, the power of poor city neighborhoods has declined, and the power of middle- and upper-class suburbs has risen. If criminal justice in poor urban neighborhoods is dysfunctional, that may be because the residents of those neighborhoods are not permitted to decide for themselves how to deal with the crime in their midst.
Those sad changes didn’t happen because of white racism; they happened because of a series of long-term trends: the Great Migration of rural Southern blacks to the urban North, white flight from Northern cities to populous suburbs, the professionalization of urban police, and so on. But the sum of those trends is a system that produces large-scale racial injustice, and that deprives urban black communities of the power to remedy that injustice. One way or another, Americans of all races need to grapple with those facts, and soon.