Black people and white people use drugs at “similar rates”, but black people are four times more likely to get arrested for drug crime.Which one can find repeated in just about every liberal and mainstream media outlet. But this is a gross oversimplification of the situation:
The Bureau of Justice has done their own analysis of this issue and finds it’s more complicated. For example, all of these “equally likely to have used drugs” claims turn out to be that blacks and whites are equally likely to have “used drugs in the past year”, but blacks are far more likely to have used drugs in the past week – that is, more whites are only occasional users. That gives blacks many more opportunities to be caught by the cops. Likewise, whites are more likely to use low-penalty drugs like hallucinogens, and blacks are more likely to use high-penalty drugs like crack cocaine. Further, blacks are more likely to live in the cities, where there is a heavy police shadow, and whites in the suburbs or country, where there is a lower one. . . . Anecdotal evidence suggests white people typically do their drug deals in the dealer’s private home, and black people typically do them on street corners. My personal discussions with black and white drug users have turned up pretty much the same thing. One of those localities is much more likely to be watched by police than the other.This all comes from a long post about the issue from Slate Star Codex, who read a stack of criminological studies and the like about this issue. The basic finding is that there is a very clear and dramatic racial bias in applying the death penalty, both in that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death and that the killers of whites are more likely to be sentenced to death. But all the other claims of bias are very hard to prove:
Conviction rates of blacks have generally found to be less than than conviction rates of whites (Burke and Turk 1975, Petersilia 1983, Wilbanks 1987). I don’t know why so many of these studies are from the 70s and 80s, but a more recent Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 66% of accused blacks get prosecuted compared to 69% of accused whites; 75% of prosecuted blacks get convicted compared to 78% of prosecuted whites.None of which means that our society is not biased against blacks. If it is true, as studies seem to show, that blacks are more likely to commit the kinds of crimes for which we hand out long jail terms, that only changes the question to why they do so, and why we (for example) think that armed robbery is more deserving of punishment than bombing nations that haven't attacked us.
The 1975 study suggested this was confounded by type of crime – for example, maybe blacks are charged more often with serious crimes for which the burden of proof is higher. The 1993 study isn’t so sure; it breaks crimes down by category and finds that if anything the pro-black bias becomes stronger. For example, 51% of blacks charged with rape are acquitted, compared to only 25% of whites. 24% of blacks charged with drug dealing are acquitted, compared to only 14% of whites. Of fourteen major crime categories, blacks have higher acquittal rates in twelve of them (whites win only in “felony traffic offenses” and “other”).
The optimistic interpretation is that there definitely isn’t any sign of bias against black people here. The pessimistic interpretation is that this would be consistent with more frivolous cases involving black people coming to the courts (ie police arrest blacks at the drop of a hat, and prosecutors and juries end up with a bunch of stupid cases without any evidence that they throw out).
One of the most striking things about crime and punishment in America is how much more vindictive we are than Europeans or Japanese. I believe the reason that Americans are so much more supportive of savagely punishing criminals is that we are more likely to see criminals as Other (especially black or immigrant) rather than part of our own community.
But this is subtle and hard to explain, and so we reach for simple, numerical "facts" that really aren't true at all.