*First things first, let’s all take a deep breath*
Does the above headline look familiar to you? If you’re like me, you’ve heard the same line regurgitated again and again.
Earlier this week, Rudy Giuliani former mayor of New York caused quite a stir when he said “you’ve got to teach your children to be respectful to the police and the real danger to them is not the police, but other black children who are going to kill them.”
Side note: Statistics report that most white people are killed by other white people.
Yesterday, Harry Houck, a former NYPD detective, made the claim that “blacks were more prone to criminality.” Houck then proceeded to read some crime statistics about New York.
He read the following: “In New York City alone, blacks are 23 percent [of the population]…They make up 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, 60 percent of all violent crimes. White only 3 percent. That is why there are more blacks in jail than there are whites.”
You will hear a common refrain that Black people are more violent, more likely to commit crimes etc. Believe it or not, this is a notion that has been promoted for decades and decades. Going all the way back to the Reconstruction era, when Black people were being lynched there was a belief that Black people were more prone to criminal behavior.
In the present day, many people will bring up statistics and use the numbers to validate already old-time racist beliefs.
Here is the problem. Statistics without context do not paint a full picture.
Look at the fact that the prison rate has increased by 500% between 1970 and 2005. Far fewer Black people were in prisons in the 1970s than today, even when you factor in the overall population growth.
If Black people were inherently more prone to criminality, then why the drastic and sudden increase in incarceration of African-Americans since 1970?
When Jim Crow laws were removed, new policies such as the war on drugs and the crack-cocaine disparity were put into place and this led to mass incarceration and an explosion in the prison population.
So is it that Blacks are more prone to criminality or is it that policy is changing what constitutes criminality and who is considered criminal?
But what about the statistics?
Statistics can be useful, but when you don’t have context, they can paint a misleading picture.
In this situation, the stats that are being shared, don’t factor in the bias in the criminal justice system, they don’t factor in poverty, they don’t factor in the connection between violent crime and drugs and they don’t factor in structurally biased policies.
For example, studies have shown that Black people and white people use drugs at roughly the same rate, yet black people are more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug-related offenses. Studies have also shown that judges can be biased in convicting and sentencing against Black people and other POC compared to white people.
The statistics also don’t factor in the relationship between poverty and crime. Historically, poor Black neighborhoods have been redlined, black schools continue to be underfunded and many black neighborhoods are environmentally unsuitable for health and wellbeing because of chemicals, like lead. Studies have shown there is a higher unemployment rate amongst poor Black people, studies have also show black people are more likely to be discharged from jobs and have a harder time being hired. The wealth disparity and lack of employment opportunity means Black people are at a higher risk of poverty.
We know that poverty and crime are connected because fewer opportunities for employment and income can lead some people to participate in illegal activities to live.
In addition, plea bargains aren’t discussed when referencing these crime statistics.
“Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining- a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor…The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the war on drugs.” (The New Jim Crow, 85-86)
Mandatory minimum sentences have pushed many people, disproportionally those who are poor and of color, to accept plea bargains because of draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
To give an example, there is a movie called American Violet, it is the true story of Regina Kelly, a black woman who was arrested for possessing/ distributing narcotics, except she never “had anything to do with drugs.” She stood by her innocence, yet she was continuously pressured by the DA and prosecutor to plea bargain to receive a lighter sentence.
She refused, but many other people, who were wrongly arrested for narcotics-related crimes, did plea bargain even though they had committed no crime. The fear that if they went to trial, they would lose and receive even longer sentences drove them to accept a guilty plea. Thus, countless innocent people plea bargained and were sentenced for a crime they never even committed. ALL OF THOSE CONVICTED IN THE Regina Kelly case were black.
I encourage you to check out the movie American Violet.
In another instance, Brian Banks, an African-American man, was forced to plea bargain on a rape charge and spent 5 years in prison, when it was later determined that the accuser had falsified her story and no rape had occurred.
So, how can we possibly know how many innocent people are in prison and now have criminal records based off of these plea bargains and a biased criminal justice system?
Thus, the statistics that people are regurgitating again and again do not necessarily indicate that Black people are more predisposed to criminality because you’re not seeing the whole context.
Finally, the vast majority of Black people do not commit violent crimes.
Thus, to say that Black people are predisposed to violent crime is to take a very small percentage of the group and then improperly extrapolate about the entire population. In other words, it’s a gross stereotype.
That would be like saying, most mass shooters in the country are white and male, so white males are predisposed to being mass shooters. Therefore I am justified in profiling, arresting and shooting white males.
It is true most mass shooters are white males, but only a small percentage of the white male population will become mass shooters, so to stereotype the entire population would be ridiculous. The same logic applies to Black people.
Most people within the justice system are not violent criminals either, about half are convicted of non-violent offenses.
So in conclusion, there are many Black people who receive unfair, biased sentences. Many are forced to plea bargain or are subject to a structurally racist system that is biased against them.
I feel that many people are using statistics without taking into account context in order to validate age old racist stereotypes.
Until, the criminal justice bias and mass incarceration are addressed, we will not progress as a society.
I personally believe that police are not entirely to blame for all of this. The system of structural racism is. Those who have the power and money to implement structurally racist policies need to held accountable and voted out, the police are just pawns in the overarching system of structural racism.
Years ago, lynching was justified because some people claimed that Black men raped white women. Stories of Emmett Till are burned into the American memory. Today, we know that the majority of those rape accusations were false and we decry this past injustice, yet mass incarceration continues.
Years from now, young people are going to look back on this era and decry the injustice of mass incarceration, just as we did lynching.