The most poisonous untruth being peddled in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal is the claim that American justice is racist. The criminal law regularly announces that black Americans are “worth less than other Americans,” Cardozo Law School professor Ekow Yankah wrote on the New York Times opinion page this week. It wasn’t activists who “injected” race into the discussion, scoffed The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie on Monday, the “criminal-justice system” is “already” racial. An e-mail alert on Wednesday from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School proclaimed: “An ugly truth rears its head again: Racial disparities are alive and well in our criminal-justice system.”
The idea that the criminal-justice system discriminates against blacks — and that this bias explains blacks’ disproportionate presence in custody — is a staple of civil-rights activism and of the academic Left. Every effort to prove it empirically, however, has come up short. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas discovered that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Alfred Blumstein has found that blacks are underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their arrest rates. A meta-analysis of charging and sentencing studies showed that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms, according to criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen.
Criminal-law professors across the political spectrum agree that the Zimmerman verdict resulted from prosecutorial overkill, not juror bias. The trial was scrupulously fair and presented the prosecution with full opportunity to make its case.
Close on the heels of the “biased justice system” conceit, however, is the preposterous implication that the primary homicide threat faced by young black males comes from honorary whites such as George Zimmerman. “Our children are targeted. Our community is targeted,” Martin Luther King III told the NAACP national convention on Wednesday. Protesters at the Orlando, Fla., courthouse this week held signs proclaiming “Endangered species: young black men and boys.” The New York Times ran an article today about the “painful talks” black parents are having with their children about how not to get gunned down by whites. A nurse’s assistant in Missouri told the Times: The whole situation ‘“would just make me skeptical about what crowd of white people I put [my son] around.’”
In fact, if a black parent wants to radically reduce his son’s chance of getting shot, he should live in a white neighborhood. New York’s crime profile is typical of urban-crime disparities across the country. The per capita shooting rate in predominantly black Brownsville, Brooklyn, is 81 times higher than that of predominantly white and Asian Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, according to the New York Police Department. Blacks in 2012 committed about 75 percent of all shootings in New York, and whites a little over 2 percent, though blacks are 23 percent of the city’s population and whites 35 percent. Blacks are 60 percent of the city’s homicide victims. Their killers? They aren’t white.
The picture is the same nationally. Black males between the ages of 14 and 24 committed homicide at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic males combined in the same age category in 2008, resulting in a homicide victimization rate nearly as disproportionate. As for interracial crime, black homicide offenders in 2010 had nearly three times the absolute number of white and Hispanic victims as there were black victims of white and Hispanic homicide offenders, despite blacks’ much lower population numbers.
The “white death threat” meme predominated in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Trayvon Martin shooting as well, of course. But in the intervening year and a half, the mainstream media have been forced, however fleetingly and inchoately, to acknowledge the black-on-black shooting spree that continues to characterize urban America, despite the country’s 17-year crime drop. The January 2013 slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a majorette in the Chicago marching band that had played at Obama’s inauguration, triggered sporadic attention to Chicago’s hardly unique gun violence over the following months. Even if the press was unwilling to point out that the killers of such inner-city victims share their skin color, that fact should have been obvious to anyone who has even the most remote contact with reality.
Yet this recognition of the real source of black homicide risk has evaporated completely in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, and we are back to the “rampaging white racists” conceit. The American Prospect’s Bouie even argues that “there’s no such thing as ‘black-on-black’ crime.” Black-on-black crime is simply a matter of proximity, he says; blacks kill each other because they usually live next to each other. But Asians also frequently live next to each other; we don’t try desperately to ignore “Asian-on-Asian” crime, however, because their crime rate is so low.
Honesty about disproportionate rates of black crime requires acknowledging another truth as well: Trayvon Martin’s race could well have been a factor in Zimmerman’s initial suspicion of him. But that is because the known suspects in the recent pattern of burglaries in his neighborhood were black. Had Asians been breaking into homes, consistently with an elevated rate of Asian crime, an unknown Asian teen wandering the neighborhood could also have drawn the attention of a neighborhood-watch volunteer. To recognize the possibility of criminal profiling at the onset of the encounter is not to justify in any moral sense the killing of an unarmed black teen or to diminish the horror of that encounter’s conclusion. The Martin case is an undeniable tragedy. But if one extremely rare shooting of an unarmed black teen by a non-black neighborhood-watch volunteer is leading black parents to warn their children about getting shot by whites, it is no less natural that people faced with blacks’ actually elevated crime rate are going to view teens who fit the black-thug look with a greater degree of trepidation. If shopkeepers in an area plagued by black robbery and shoplifting go into heightened awareness mode when black youth congregate outside their store or enter it, their response is not only inevitable, it is also rational, based on the evidence. The most efficient solution to such reactions is to bring the black crime rate down to the rates of white and Asian crime.
An eight-year-old girl was killed, and two other children and their grandmother wounded, in Oakland on Wednesday night when an unknown gunman sprayed their apartment with bullets. I’m guessing, based on historical crime rates, that the gunman is black. Do the people grandstanding today about “racial profiling” think otherwise?
— Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?