July 24, 2013
Thoughts on Crime, Racial Profiling and Trayvon
During the President's heartfelt and thoughtful comments on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case last Friday, he said:
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
I imagine that it is hard not to take this personally. If you had white skin, wearing the same clothes, would you get the same reactions? Probably not: therefore African Americans conclude that most white Americans are, at essence, racist.
But is the driver in the next car a racist, in spite of the Obama/Biden sticker on their bumper? Is that woman clutching her purse? The Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly once said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.... After all we have been through. Just to think we can't walk down our own streets, how humiliating.” Obviously, the Reverend is not a racist. But is there some rational, emperical basis for this common reaction to the sight of young black males?
The President even suggested as much:
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
The question of whether racial profiling can ever be justified is one of the unexamined issues that arise from the recent trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. The prosecution based its case on the claim that Zimmerman unjustly “profiled” Martin as a potential criminal based upon his race, setting off a tragic chain of events that ended in the death of the teenager. Zimmerman may have been a poor choice for a case to highlight racial profiling -- all the evidence suggests that he was not motivated by racial animus and, in spite of the media and his Jewish last name, he is himself multiracial -- the black community has focused upon the apparent fact that Martin was targeted for additional scrutiny because of his race. But while it may be painful for black males to be viewed with suspicion solely because of the color of their skin, is it really "racist?" Or is there hard, objective evidence to justify viewing race (along with age and sex) as an indicator of potential criminality?
Black men and crime
We’ve all seen the sorry statistics (from the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet):
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
But none of these facts says anything about black men’s propensity to commit crimes. If our criminal justice system is biased against African Americans, that could account for the disproportionate incarceration of black men.
However, there is data available from the US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) on the perceived race of violent offenders. This data is collected from a nationally representative sample of about 40,000 households comprising nearly 75,000 persons who are interviewed twice a year on their personal experiences as the victims of crime. One of the questions asked of respondents who report that they have been victimized during the last 6 months is “Was the offender white, black, or some other race?” If these first-hand reports by crime victims show that black offenders account for a larger percentage of the crimes than their share of the overall population, then “profiling” blacks may be entirely rational.
The latest detailed NCVS results available are for 2008, and the following data are taken from Table 40. Personal crimes of violence, 2008: Percent distribution of single-offender victimizations, by type of crime and perceived race of offender.
The table above shows that there were more than a million “acts of completed violence” in the US during 2008. (The DoJ researchers “scaled up” the survey results from their stratified sample to estimate the number of victimizations for the nation as a whole.) The NCVS defines these acts as “the sum of all completed rapes, sexual assaults, robberies and assaults.” According to the victims of these attacks, the attackers were white in 56% of the cases, black in 28%, other race in 6% and unknown or not provided in 9% of the incidents.
Of course, it is possible that the victim’s perceptions of the offender’s race are inaccurate. We all remember the infamous cases where non-existent black men were accused of crimes to deflect attention away from the real guilty parties. But Table 42 of the NCVS shows that most victims of completed acts of violence identify a member of their own race as the offender. This suggests that the data may not be racially biased.
The chart above shows that white crime victims identified their attackers as white in 67.8% of the acts of completed violence. Similarly, black crime victims characterized their attackers as black in 66.5% of the cases.
We also know from the NCVS that more than 80% of completed acts of violence are perpetrated by men. The results from Table 38 are shown below:
If we assume that the share of violent crime between men and woman is the same for blacks and whites, we can calculate the number of victimizations perpetrated by male offenders of each race. Leaving out incidents when the race of the offender is other or unknown, we can calculate the number of single-offender victimizations committed by perpetrators perceived (by their victims) as being black or white males. (The total number of victimizations multiplied by percent committed by males multiplied by the percent committed by black or white offenders.) The results of these calculations are shown below:
During 2008, we see that an estimated 456,542 individual acts of completed violence were conducted by perpetrators identified as white men in the U.S. as a whole. (Note that the NCVS data excludes homicides from its definition of violence because of the impossibility of interviewing the victims.) Based on estimates prepared by the Census Bureau, there were 120.3 million white males living in the U.S. in 2008. During the same year, 229,487 violent attacks were conducted by offenders perceived to be black men while there were a total of 18.6 million black men living in the United States. This same information is presented graphically below:
From this data, we can then calculate the propensity to commit violent offenses for white and black males based upon their proportion of the total population in the U.S. during 2008. These figures are shown in the table below:
We can see that 3.8 acts of completed violence were committed by white males for every 100,000 white males in the U.S. during 2008. For black males, the corresponding figure was 12.3 acts of completed violence for every 100,000 black men in the population. In relative terms, the propensity of black males to commit acts of completed violence was 3.2 times that of white males.
Looking at these numbers, where the relative propensity of black males to commit an act of violence is from 3 to 7 times the rate for white males, perhaps Rev. Jackson can be excused for feeling relieved in seeing white faces in the night behind him.
More seriously, these figures support the conclusion that there is a rational basis for using race as a risk factor in evaluating the threat of potential violent attack. Similarly, men (of either race) should be regarded as 4 times as likely to commit a violent act as females. People living in urban environments where street crime is an unfortunate reality can’t stop themselves from internalizing these indicators of potential threat. Similarly, other factors are used to fine-tune these threat assessments; for example, age (older people commit less crimes), dress, location, posture, etc.
It is unrealistic to expect that black men won’t resent being perceived as a threat when they are peacefully going about their business. Clearly, they are being judged solely on the color of their skin, which is the classic definition of racial prejudice. As a human being, seeing other people react to you in a negative way because of your race has got to hurt.
However, at the same time, it’s unreasonable to expect people not to be aware of the unfortunate fact that black men are several times more likely than other groups to pose a threat to their personal safety. There may be historical and cultural context to explain why this is this case, but it cannot be disputed that it is true. As Reverend Jackson's comments illustrate, whites are not the only people who come to these conclusions and have these fears.
As the late Rodney King once said, in response to another media-fueled racial eruption, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" Maybe, instead of focusing upon the jury's decision in the Trayvon Martin case or the prevalence of racial profiling, we should think about ways to prevent these types of tragedies from recurring. As President Obama said:
... and this is a long-term project -- we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. ...There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?