“Systemic Injustice” or “Systemic Racism” are a couple of catch phrases that are being ubiquitously used to describe our country’s criminal justice system, including our police departments, our laws, our courts and our judges.
This article aims to debunk those myths. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t deny that racism and injustices do occur, but when people add an adjective like “systemic” along with it they’ve painted with a brush much too broad.
Let’s start with the police. I’ve covered the myth of police brutality here, but I’ll once again re-hash the main points.
- In 2008 there were only 2,060 credible complaints of police brutality in over 53 million police/citizen encounters. That’s 0.0039%. (source link)
- In 2012 police arrested 12,196,959 people. By the most anti-cop standards they killed around 1,200. That’s 0.0098% and even the overwhelming majority of those were clearly justified as the suspects were either attacking the police or someone else with a weapon or were trying to wrestle an officer’s gun from them.
- Police do not over-arrest blacks. Their arrest numbers square with what CRIME VICTIMS have reported. Blacks commit around 28% of all crimes and are around 28% of all arrests. (source link)
- Around 50% of people shot by the police are white. (source link)
- Around 26% of people shot by the police are black, which once again squares with the crime and arrest rates of blacks, and could be considered lower than expected given that blacks commit much higher rates of violent crimes than whites. (source link)
- Black officers kill black suspects about 3.3 times more often than white officers do (source link)
- The 36 unarmed black males killed by police in 2015 measured against the total black male population (nearly 19 million in mid-2014 per the Census Bureau) amounts to a per capita rate of 0.0000018 unarmed fatalities by police. (source link)
But black people are only 13% of the population you say? That’s true, but police go to where the crime is, and crime is disproportionately committed by blacks.
- Black people commit around 52% of all murders, around 40% of all violent crimes including 56% of robberies, 35% of aggravated assaults and 29% of property crimes. (source link)
You can’t say “blacks are only 13% of the population but are 28% of people arrested and 26% of people shot by police, therefore there must be systemic racism.” If blacks committed only 5% of all crimes and yet were 28% of all arrests you might have a leg to stand on, but that is not the case.
By the same logic you would have to say that police have an anti-men bias because the overwhelming number of people arrested or killed by the police are male instead of female despite the fact that females are 52% of our nation’s population.
The Washington Post, convinced that officers were killing black people with reckless abandon, set out to prove it. By the end of their study even they had to admit that black people were actually shot LESS OFTEN than their white counter parts. (source link)
The Washington Post wasn’t the only one to conduct such a study, however. Washington State University did an experiment of their own and discovered that black suspects were around 25 times less likely to be shot than white suspects were in similar situations (source link)
So now that “systemic injustice” in brutality complaints, shootings and arrests has been debunked, what about more benign enforcement such as traffic tickets?
A 2002 study in New Jersey set up a radar gun and took photographs of tens of thousands of drivers on the same roadway and found that blacks were caught speeding at a much higher frequency than any other race. (source link)
There hasn’t been any official studies that I know of that sought to determine whether blacks are targeted more often on traffic stops, but it stands to reason that blacks, whose median income is nearly half of that of whites, would be less likely to buy car insurance, register and inspect their vehicles and keep up with regular maintenance, all of which could lead to more traffic stops and thus more traffic tickets. Those stops can often lead to more arrests as well if the driver has outstanding warrants, etc. (source link)
So that covers the police, what about prisons and courts?
In Heather MacDonald’s book “The War on Cops” she states that in 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing and concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending”, not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms. A 1987 analysis of Georgia felony convictions found that blacks frequently got disproportionately lenient punishment. A 1990 study of 11,000 California cases found that slight racial disparities in sentence length resulted from blacks’ prior records and other legally relevant variables. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas found 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. Following convictions blacks were more likely to go to prison, but that was an outcome that reflected the gravity of their offenses as well as their criminal records. In 1993 criminologist Alfred Blumstein found that blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their presence in the arrest data. (source link)
The truth is that it’s nigh impossible to compare racial sentencing on a large scale because there are too many variables like the heinousness of the crimes, the defendant’s criminal history, etc.
Many who claim systemic racism exists will point to the difference in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. In 1986 the federal Anti Drug Abuse Act made it so that getting caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine resulted in a mandatory minimum 5 year sentence. You’d have to get caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to get a similar sentence. Since crack cocaine was known as “the black man’s drug” many believe that this is evidence of systemic racial injustice.
First of all, the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine applied to whites as well, and the more lenient sentencing for powder cocaine applied to blacks as well. It should also be mentioned that these sentencing guidelines applied only to federal offenses which account for just 12.3% of all people imprisoned when you include state prisons. On the state level, only 13 states distinguished a difference between crack and powder cocaine and their sentencing disparities were much less severe than the federal sentencing.
But going back to the harsher crack sentences, there were reasons that crack was more harshly punished and none of those reasons point to the idea that blacks were targeted just for being black. For one, crack is smokable, highly concentrated and addictive. It provides a faster and stronger high than powder does and is easier to use. A better comparison to crack cocaine might be methamphetamine, which could be considered “the white man’s drug” (over 50% of meth arrests were of white people, only 2% of meth arrests were of black people) and meth carried the same mandatory 5 year sentence for 5 grams that crack did, yet you don’t hear anyone complaining about whites being targeted with harsher punishment.
The second reason that we can’t look to harsher crack sentences as an example of systemic racism is the fact that the bill that contained the crack/powder distinction won majority support among black congressmen, none of whom objected to it as a racist bill. Crack was devastating black communities in the 80’s and this bill was a good faith effort to do something about it. In short, just like with the police, they were targeting the crime, not the skin color.
Furthermore, in 2010 they passed the Fair Sentencing Act which upped the amount of grams of crack from 5 grams to 28 grams to trigger certain federal penalties and they eliminated mandatory minimum sentences. Meth, on the other hand, has only gotten more severe sentencing since 2010.
I also just have to add, it seems like common sense, but if you don’t want a stricter punishment for possessing or selling crack, there’s always the option of just NOT possessing or selling crack. No one put a gun to anyone’s head and made them commit these crimes. They made that choice.
It should also be mentioned that violent and property crimes still make up the vast majority of black prisoners. If you removed all black prisoners who were in for drug charges from the state prison populations in 2006, it would only reduce the total population of black prisoners from 37.5% to 37%. So this idea that the “war on drugs” was started to target black people is simply indefensible.
Even on a federal level, where the crack/powder sentencing disparity is and was the strongest, blacks only make up 27% of the federal prison population.
In closing, I think it’s pretty clear that the higher number of black arrests, the higher black prison population and the higher number of blacks being shot by police is a direct reflection of a higher rate of criminal activity. Sure, there may be rare instances here and there of racial bias among police officers or judges, but it certainly isn’t systemic.