Orlando Vacation from Reality

by Heather Mac Donald

What Patterson got wrong.

The high incarceration rate of black males is not “solely the result of white racism,” wrote Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in the New York Times on Sunday. Patterson’s startling admission was occasioned by the media-saturated protests two weeks ago in Jena., Louisiana, over attempted murder charges lodged against five black students who had beaten a white student unconscious. This unusual outbreak of frankness on the pages of the New York Times might seem to signal a breakthrough in the otherwise nonexistent public debate over black crime.  Unfortunately, celebrations are not in order. While Patterson does manage to squeeze out some previously taboo truths about black criminality, he hedges those truths with so much politically correct boilerplate about a racist justice system as to almost entirely blunt their impact. His op-ed is as much a measure of the barriers to honesty as a release from them.

First the good news: Patterson’s oped declares that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other leading Jena demonstrators are in a “state of denial” when they acknowledge only white racism as the reason for black imprisonment. It is a “simple fact that young black men commit a disproportionate number of crimes, especially violent crimes, which cannot be attributed to judicial bias, racism or economic hardships,” writes this sociologist of race. “The rate at which blacks commit homicides is seven times that of whites.” So far, so good.

As importantly, Patterson draws attention to black family breakdown. The “absence of fathers” and the 70-percent black illegitimacy rate are “undoubtedly a major cause of youth delinquency,” he says. Patterson attributes the disintegration of marriage to a “crisis in relations between [African-American] men and women,” above all to high rates of domestic violence and misogyny.

Had such observations stood alone, they might have provided enough of a shock to the status quo to start a more lasting debate about the toll of crime and illegitimacy on black communities. But before Patterson reaches them, he inoculates the reader from their significance with recycled myths about racism. Among Patterson’s untruths:

The “prison system [is] a means of controlling young black men.” This Foucault-inspired, academic theory-saturated bromide is utterly meaningless. The only “young black men” whom the prison system attempts to control are those who have committed crimes. Stay crime-free and you stay out of the courts and the jails. Graduate from college and you will find every elite institution courting you for the favor of your presence.

The fact that “blacks are incarcerated at over eight times the white rate” is a “racially biased . . . situation,” resulting in a “virtual gulag of racial incarceration,”  Patterson intones. Again, this incendiary language has no evidence behind it. Such promiscuous charges are irresponsible since they only reinforce the self-defeating sense among black youth that the system is stacked against them. Patterson’s attempt to back up the “racial gulag” conceit only compounds the problem.

The “law enforcement system…unfairly focuses on drug offenses and other crimes more likely to be committed by blacks,” he says. This statement implies that there are significant categories of crimes less likely to be committed by blacks that are ignored by the law enforcement system. He offers no examples of such crimes, however, because there are none. In every category of major felony, be it violent crimes like rape, robbery, assault, and homicide, or property crimes like burglary and auto theft, blacks far outstrip whites and Asians in rates of commission. It is the (largely minority) victims of, and witnesses to, those crimes who report this imbalance, not the allegedly “racist” architects and administrators of the criminal-justice system. According to victim testimony, any given violent crime in New York City is 13 times more likely to be committed by a black than by a white; this ratio is typical of crime rates across the country.  

Perhaps Patterson is thinking of white-collar crime when he implies a lack of attention to some category of allegedly less-black crime. While it is undoubtedly the case that blacks are underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership in corporate America, there is no evidence that blacks are underrepresented among white collar criminals or among people committing crime in the workplace. In 1992, University of Pennsylvania law professor Regina Austin wrote a breathtakingly awful article in the California Law Review celebrating black employees who steal from their employers and and “clerks in stores [who] cut their friends a break.” Nowhere did Austin suggest that these admirable “hustlers” were an underrepresented species among employees; her purpose was merely to praise them for fighting an oppressive power structure.

In any case, after the 24-year sentence for Enron’s Jeff Skilling, the 25-year sentence for Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, the 15-year sentence for octogenarian John Rigas of Adelphia (down from the 215 years requested by the prosecutor), and the up to 25 years for Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, it is hard to take seriously the charge that white-collar criminals are let off with a slap on the wrist. But even if penalties for business crime were tripled, it would not significantly change the demographics of the jail population, because the rate of white collar crime pales in significance to street crime.

As for the law enforcement system “unfairly” focusing on drug offenses, Patterson has clearly never been to a police-community meeting in Harlem, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, or any other poor urban neighborhood. Had he done so, he would have heard the following full-throated cry from the community: “Get the dealers off the streets and keep them off the streets.” Law-abiding residents of poor minority neighborhoods cannot understand why dealers arrested one day are back on the corner the next day; they rail against prosecutors who plead out drug crimes rather than sentencing the perpetrators to serious time. Unlike ivory-tower academics, people who live in the midst of the drug trade understand that violence is its constant subtext. Whether or not a dealer is actually flashing a gun at any given moment, the threat of gun violence is ever-present where the drug culture flourishes, which is why it scares the heck out of poor, upstanding citizens who live with it.

Patterson also decries “draconian mandatory sentencing.” But such sentencing regimes were a response to popular anger against judges who let criminals back on the street to prey on the law-abiding. And the alleged “retreat from rehabilitation” in prisons came after the recognition in the 1970s that such programs had little effect on recidivism. Prison rehab efforts still show only “modest reductions” in recidivism, wrote criminologist Jeremy Travis in 2001. To be sure, much could be improved in how we hold prisons accountable for the prisoners they release and in how we reintegrate ex-cons into society. But a bigger problem is that most inmates take no advantage of the programs that are available to them.  

After his unconvincing list of examples of criminal-justice bias, Patterson can’t help throwing in a final catch-all to explain the astronomical black-incarceration rate: “old-fashioned racism” — just in case we didn’t get the message the first ten times around. Of course, this Harvard sage presents no examples of “old-fashioned racism;” his invocation of it is nothing more than a verbal tic.

After this tirade against institutional racism, Patterson’s discussion of black crime rates and family breakdown is anti-climactic. But just to make sure that his standing with liberal elites is unassailable, at the end of his piece, Patterson lets fly a few swipes at conservatives. He blames the black incarceration rate on, inter alia, the “hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values.” This charge, like so much else, is made up out of whole cloth. The only politicians and policy makers who have tried to programmatically strengthen family values are conservatives; the marriage movement, spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, seeks to channel a portion of federal welfare dollars into marriage counseling for the poor. If any liberal politicians have gotten behind this idea, they are keeping quiet about it. And Patterson’s call for “greatly expand[ed] social services for infants and children” — as if the last 40 years of poverty policy haven’t proven the futility of such money sinkholes — is a pathetic diversion from the only effective social service for children: two married parents.

The Jena protesters and their media enablers will take what they want from Patterson’s oped and ignore the rest. And meanwhile, the necessary effort to reintegrate more young black men into law-abiding society — above all, by revaluing marriage — will be delayed for another day.

 – Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.