‘In our criminal justice system, African Americans and whites, for the same crime . . . are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, receive very different sentences.” That supposed fact has spread far and wide — last year 84 percent of blacks in a Washington Post/ABC News poll said that the system treats whites and minorities differently — and has even filtered to the highest ranks: The words quoted above were spoken by one Barack Obama while he was running for president in 2008.
This belief might seem reasonable in the light of a cursory examination of incarceration data. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks made up 36 percent of the 1.54 million prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities at the end of 2010, though they made up just 13 percent of the general population. As critics point out ad nauseam, there is a disparity. But why?