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.

  Crimes by race of perp.xls#Table 40 Exhibit!A30_H42

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.

  Table 42 exhibit Chart 1

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:

Table 38 Exhibit

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:

Number of Single offender victimizations by preceived race of offender 2008

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:

Share of Completed Violence and population by race graph 2008
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:

Single offender victimizations per 100k members of offenders race 2008

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?

July 24, 2013 at 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 12, 2006

Back When London Was Really Swinging

Responding to the surprising public interest sparked by John Profumo's recent death, today's Sunday Times has a fascinating play-by-play of the Profumo affair, including steamy details of high society orgies and all sorts of fun times. The piece, by Matthew Parris, is extracted from a book-length account he wrote with Kevin Maguire and published in 2004: Great Parliamentary Scandals : Four Centuries of Calumny, Smear & Innuendo. (Copies may also be ordered from the London Times here.)

Here is one of the more salacious bits, taken from Lord Denning's official report on the matter:

There is a great deal of evidence that there is a group of people who hold parties in private of a perverted nature. At some of these parties, the man who serves dinner is nearly naked except for a small square lace apron round his waist such as a waitress might wear. He wears a black mask over his head with slits for eye-holes. He cannot therefore be recognised by any of the guests.

Some reports stop there and say that nothing evil takes place. It is done as a comic turn and no more. This may well be so at some of the parties. But at others it is followed by perverted sex orgies: the man in the mask is a ‘slave’ who is whipped: that guests undress and indulge in sexual intercourse one with the other: and indulge in other sexual activities of a vile and revolting nature.

And you thought Bill Clinton had all the fun.

Here are a few more links to interesting overviews of the scandal:

  • The Guardian's special report on politics past: The Profumo Scandal

  • The BBC's "infamous crimes" series piece on the Profumo Affair

  • Of course, be sure to read this link to John Profumo's obituaries, for the human side of this unfortunate circus.

March 12, 2006 at 12:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 23, 2006

Winter in America

Columnist Gerard Baker, writing in today's UK Times, sees broader significance in Harvard President Larry Summers having been run out of office:

TWENTY YEARS AGO the American philosopher, Allan Bloom, published a book called The Closing of the American Mind, a devastating indictment of the nation’s universities and, more broadly, of its cultural elites.

Its premise was that the spirit of openness, a willingness to consider ideas freely, the great virtue of American life and the guiding ethos of a university had been perverted into a cultural relativism. From the 1960s liberal philosophy had taken hold, defiantly asserting that truth was in the eye of the beholder, and that notions of absolute ideals or virtues were anachronistic. In this new world, liberal democracy was no better than totalitarian theocracy, Plato’s philosophy was no more valid than Marianne Faithfull’s and Mozart should be considered on the same terms as the Monkees.

The resignation of Larry Summers as President of Harvard University this week indicates that the closing of the American mind is a continuing process, remorselessly squeezing the light out of its academic enlightenment

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February 23, 2006 at 11:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 16, 2006

You Make the Call!

Is this Jeremy Clarkson piece in the Sunday Times a review of the Mini Cooper S Convertible or an exploration of the meaning of social class in contemporary Britain?

February 16, 2006 at 09:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 08, 2006

This Planet Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us

One of the (few) downsides of globalization is that it has become impossible for peoples to ignore each other. With the rise of trans-oceanic cables, cheap, fast international travel, CNN, and now the internet, it's hard to turn around in the global kitchen without elbowing someone in the ribs. Back in the good old days, people in the Mideast didn't give a rat's ass what people in the West said or wrote or drew about Islam. But now, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we are all in their face about it.

Conversely, back in the day, we never knew (or at least paid any attention to) what people in the Mideast said about the decadent West, or the need to drive the jews into the sea, or what kinds of anti-semitic tripe state television networks broadcast or newspapers printed.

As Rodney King once said, "Can't we all just get along?"

And while I'm ranting, Michelle Malkin makes some excellent points about how the MSM is misleading its remaining customers by refusing to actually show the 12 cartoons which started this stupid controversy. If you bother to actually look at the cartoons, they are really quite inoffensive.

Cropped images of all 12 mohammed cartoons

Finally, read this interesting column by the NY Sun columnist Nibras Kazimi on why the Mideast is so violent and volatile:

. . . The people of the East are waiting for an avenger, not a savior. They long for whoever will wash away the humiliation of having their principal cities, once seats of far flung empires, now roamed by infidel troops or their perceived lackeys. "More schools, hospitals, and functioning sewers? Better Copenhagen burning to the ground!" And these days, the names most talked are those of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi. They provide the fantasy of victory: American soldiers in body bags, and American diplomats in retreat. The mujaheddin toughing it out in the mountains, or flicking off scorpions in the desert, while huddled down with rusty rifles to waylay a tank or helicopter - shaping the battlefield and expanding the writ of havoc - conjure up powerful images and role models for idle youths. They project the heady aroma of masculine virility: It used to be about nationalizing the Suez, but now it is about bombing trains in Spain. It is now about the nation of Iran, forgetting about its massive economic and societal ills, wanting to reequip itself with a nuclear weapon.

February 8, 2006 at 09:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 04, 2006

The Third Rail of Punditry

Journalist/blogger La Shawn Barber, who just so happens to be black, has touched off a shite-storm of criticism by daring to touch the third rail of punditry: discussing differences in average intelligence among racial groups. The comments on her post (and she reports that she did not delete or block any comments) were impressively intelligent and high-minded, though, of course, some commenters did not agree with her conclusions.

Ms. Barber should be thanked for daring to raise this issue. Perhaps she was inspired by Charles Murray's decision (co-author of the controversial 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life) to break eleven years of silence on race and intelligence with his recent essay The Inequality Taboo in Commentary. (I wrote about Murray's essay here back in August.)

Keep the faith, La Shawn.

February 4, 2006 at 12:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 29, 2006

The Left's OJ Case

The infamous murder trial of OJ Simpson continues to polarize American public opinion. An NBC News poll conducted ten years after the trial shows that whites believe Simpson was guilty by a margin of more than 7:1. Conversely, blacks believe he was innocent by a more than 2:1 margin.

Similarly, more than fifty years after the conviction and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for stealing nuclear secrets for Stalin's Soviet Uniion, leftist continue to believe in the innocence of this benighted couple. This in spite of numerous declassified Soviet files unambiguously proving that the Rosenbergs were valued KGB agents who made significant contributions to the USSR's atomic weapons program. Joseph Rago reports for the WSJ's Opinion Journal from a forum at Fordham Law School on the "artistic influence" of the Rosenbergs, featuring lefty writers E.L. Doctorow and Tony Kushner:

You would think, by now, with a half-century of scholarship behind us and a great deal of damning evidence on display, we would not have to be arguing about the guilt or innocence of various iconic figures of the late 1940s and 1950s: Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White or, perhaps most notoriously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But the martyr status of such figures seems irresistible, even today, to a certain kind of sentimental leftist. They still remain symbols of some malevolent American quality--never mind the truth of what they actually did.

. . . The notion that anyone would today deny their fundamental complicity in Soviet subversion is extraordinary, almost comically so. But comedy was not quite the mentality at the Rosenberg event. "Ambiguity is the key word, I think," said Mr. Doctorow, regarding our understanding of the past, though in this instance ambiguous is precisely what it is not.

Mr. Kushner argued the Rosenbergs were "murdered, basically." Mr. Doctorow went further, explaining that he wanted to use their circumstances to tell "a story of the mind of the country." It was a mind, apparently, filled with loathing and paranoia--again, never mind the truth of the charges against the Rosenbergs or other spies of the time. "The principles of the Cold War had reached absurdity," he continued. "We knew that the Russians were no threat, but we wanted to persuade Americans to be afraid" and so impose "a Puritan, punitive civil religion." Pronounced Mr. Kushner: "Our failure to come to terms with a brutal past, our failure to open up the coffins and let the ghosts out, has led to our current, horrendous situation."

January 29, 2006 at 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 02, 2006

The American Disease is Spreading

This is from today's UK Guardian:

A man who tried to sue a local council after he soiled his trousers tops a list of spurious public liability claims which cost local government and insurance companies an estimated £250m each year.

The man blamed the incident on the council's decision to close a public lavatory at the bus station and argued he was owed the cost of a new pair of trousers.

Compiling the list, the public sector insurer Zurich Municipal said exaggerated and dubious claims were an increasing problem. They include a man who claimed to have injured his arm after slipping on steps owned by a housing association. He had jumped out of his window to avoid being caught with another woman when his girlfriend returned home unexpectedly.

The list also features a bin man who made a claim against his council after being "startled" by a dead badger which fell out of a bag, a shoplifter who sued because she fell down stairs while running from the scene of a crime, and a motorist who claimed he did not see a traffic roundabout in daylight - despite there being a large tree in the middle.

You've got to admire someone who would think of suing over being startled by a dead badger...

January 2, 2006 at 09:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 12, 2005

Hasta La Vista, Baby!

The Governator decided not to grant Stanley "Tookie" Williams clemency for the four cold-blooded murders he committed more than twenty five years ago. For me -- and evidently for the Governor as well -- the key question in Williams' request for clemency was whether or not he had sincerely atoned for his crimes. As Schwarzenegger put it in his formal opinion to deny clemency:

Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case. Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption. In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.

Clemency decisions are always difficult, and this one is no exception. After reviewing and weighing the showing Williams has made in support of his clemency request, there is nothing that compels me to nullify the jury’s decision of guilt and sentence and the many court decisions during the last 24 years upholding the jury’s decision with a grant of clemency.

Therefore, based on the totality of circumstances in this case, Williams’ request for clemency is denied.

I do not relish the thought of another person being put to death, regardless of the crimes they have committed. But Tookie forfeited his right to live when he callously took the lives of four others to eliminate any witnesses to his crimes. When Williams is executed this evening at a minute past midnight Pacific Time, justice will have been served.

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December 12, 2005 at 05:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 08, 2005

Tookie's Last Chance

Stan "Tookie" Williams' clemency hearing with the Governator began at 10am today. As an earlier LAT story by Jenifer Warren and Henry Weinsten noted, since there are no new legal issues or evidence to consider, it all comes down to a question of mercy.

Meanwhile, NY Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch does not seem to have been persuaded by Tookie's claims of redemption.

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December 8, 2005 at 02:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack