Sunday, April 24, 2016

How Racist is the American Criminal Justice System?

Human beings have a habit of searching for clear, simple expressions of hideously complex phenomena. Consider, for example, liberals unhappy with how many blacks are in prison in America. They toss off pseudo-explanations like,
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.

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).
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.

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.


Unknown said...

"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 . . ." Is this claim not also susceptible to the criticism that "Human beings have a habit of searching for clear, simple expressions of hideously complex phenomena"? Surely our culture's obsession with punishment must in itself be a complex phenomenon. And the same should probably said of the leniency of Japan and continental Europe, and the relative harshness of contemporary China, India's routine police brutality, and so on, and so on . . .

John said...

Maybe. But I believe that American attitudes toward crime and criminals are all mixed up with race and have been for a long time; and that the the history that underlies contemporary attitudes and so on has also been very much about race.

G. Verloren said...

Regarding the punitive nature of American justice, there are probably a lot of factors that go into that.

Differences between American Christianity and European Christianity might be one major influence, with Europe having largely rejected Puritanical thought, and America being the refuge to which Puritans fled to foster their extreme views in peace.

Our history of frontier culture and our attachment to "The Myth of The Gun" might be another big piece of the puzzle. We romanticize the lone pioneer with a gun who makes their own justice - be it the homesteader guarding their own land, the militiaman serving as citizen soldier for the nation, or the deputized sheriff or marshal acting as judge, jury and executioner. Europeans recoil at the notion of criminals not living to see trial, while Americans almost seem to see it as their just deserts, practically divinely ordained.

America's unique relationship with racism and slavery of course cannot be discounted. While of course countless European nations engaged in slavery, for the most part their slaves were not a major factor in domestic life, but rather were chiefly restricted to the colonies and imperial territories. On the other hand, huge numbers of Americans lived beside and amongst their slaves, and actively took part in and internalized the insitution of repression which slavery demanded. This close connection to racial brutality persisted more thoroughly in America after Abolition came about - European whites more readily accepted freed blacks on an equal footing both socially and legally, because the prior systems of punishment had chiefly operated overseas and outside of the everyday culture and home governance.

We can probably also toss the legacy of World War II into the mix. Americans tend to view themselves as the people who just wanted to be left alone, but when the Europeans and Asians got all uppity, they had to go save the day and forcibly put people in their places. They readily justify atrocities like the targetting of foreign civilian centers with incendiary and nuclear weapons as having been necessary acts which saved American lives, and suggest that because others comitted even greater crimes, that somehow lessens the guilt for their own actions. They to this day mock the French as cowards who surrendered without a fight, despite the ravages of the blitzkrieg, despite the French being one of the most militarily accomplished people in all of history, and despite the fact that the French Resistance continued all throughout the war in spite of the capitulation of the Vichy Regime.

And then of course there's the influences of the Cold War. Americans began to see themselves as the leaders of the free world, the exporters of modern Western culture, and the greatest people on the planet living in the greatest country in history. Anything even somewhat uniquely American was spun in as positive a light as possible, because to admit to flaws or failings would be to appear weak in the face of our Soviet enemies. We could turn a blind eye to issues of race by focusing constantly on the threat of Communism. Sure, our our minority populations might get viciously beaten into submission by the police from time to time, but at least they're not getting viciously beaten into submission by -secret- police! And what are those whiners crying about anyway? They live in the greatest country in the world, and they get to enjoy all the benefits that brings! Blue jeans! Rock and roll! Stealth bombers and guided missiles! What's not to love?