Unprotected, Underserved: The (False) Criminalization of Black America

Illustration for article titled Unprotected, Underserved: The (False) Criminalization of Black America
Graphic: Michael Harriot (The Root; images via iStock)

Editor’s note: This week, The Root will examine the many facets of law enforcement and its effects on the black community with our weeklong series Unprotected, Underserved: The Policing of Black America.


Any attempt at understanding the effects of policing in black America must begin from a rational, objective perspective. We must first free ourselves from the accepted biased narrative that accompanies enforcement of the law in black communities—namely that the negative effects of the criminal-justice system are due to the disproportionate criminality of the black population.

Even the most passionate activists and allies have subconsciously accepted the prevailing premise. They will preface their arguments on police brutality by acknowledging the plague of black-on-black crime and violence in the black community. They will acknowledge the fact that black people need to “put down the guns,” “stop the violence” and “do better.”

To be clear, all violence is bad. We need to address all crime, whether it is the black-on-black variety or the kind where white teenagers bring in military weapons to their 10th-grade social studies class. Black people, however, are just more likely to break the law, necessitating more police scrutiny and harsher treatment by law enforcement officers. After all, these officers are just looking at the statistics and doing their jobs.

But is it true?

Is the disproportionate state violence against black people a result of our disproportionate criminality? Do the inequities in America’s criminal-justice system reflect our misconduct? Are black people policed this way because of racism? Or are police brutality, mass incarceration and the war on black bodies a necessary reality?

Let’s look at the facts.

Numerous academic studies have shown that crime is largely a socioeconomic phenomenon, including this one, this one and this one by researchers at the University of Minnesota, which states:

Arrests statistics and much research indicate that poor people are much more likely than wealthier people to commit street crime. However, some scholars attribute the greater arrests of poor people to social class bias against them. Despite this possibility, most criminologists would probably agree that social class differences in criminal offending are “unmistakable.”


The disparity in crime and arrest rates is because African Americans are twice as likely to fall below the poverty index and poor whites are less likely to go to prison than even wealthy blacks, according to a 2016 study by Duke University and the New School. Poor people commit crimes, and black communities, on average, tend to be poorer.

Yet whenever the subject of police brutality is brought up, people who belong to the exclusive Greek-letter organization Mu Alpha Gamma Alpha (I’m pretty sure that’s what “MAGA” stands for) will pull out their bibles and turn to the newest testament—the arrest statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. They will point out that African Americans were arrested for more murders than whites. Therefore, they will explain, black people are more violent. That’s why cops lock them up and shoot them in the face—case closed.


But when one takes a look at all of the data, the numbers tell a different story.

While white women might clutch their purses when they encounter a black man in a dark parking lot, in comparison with the black population, whites commit more than twice the number of rapes, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies, arsons, frauds, sex offenses, embezzlement, disorderly conduct and drug abuse violations, according to FBI numbers.


Although it is true that black people, per capita, commit crime at higher rates, the vast majority of people, black or white, do not commit a crime in any given year. The per capita crime rate is a useless factoid when the reality shows that 95 percent of black people don’t commit a crime in any given year. Whenever almost any kind of crime is committed in the U.S., it is far more likely that the person responsible is white.

Illustration for article titled Unprotected, Underserved: The (False) Criminalization of Black America
Image: Michael Harriot (The Root)

In fact, regarding the importance of per capita crime rates, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that the rate of violence among poor, urban whites (56.4 per 1,000) is higher than the violence rate for urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000).

Let’s put it this way: If a random police officer had to solve a random crime without any clues and no knowledge of the perpetrator, statistically, Officer Random would be right far more often if he guessed that it was a white person. Furthermore, if Detective Random stopped a white person on the street, the data shows that that person is statistically as likely to be a criminal as any black person.


And yet black people continue to be policed more violently and scrutinized more often by law enforcement. White America continues to push the narrative that black people are violent criminals, even though the numbers don’t show it.

But if we are going to examine black criminality, we must also investigate the opposite side of the narrative: Are black people actually targeted by law enforcement? Is it true that cops brutalize, mistreat and kill black people disproportionately?


Let’s look at the numbers:

Over the past decade, cities and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have compiled extensive reports and data on traffic stops and pedestrian searches. The statistics are startling:

  • In San Francisco, African Americans are 3.3 times, and Latinos 2.6 times, more likely than whites to be searched after a traffic stop. But according to an ACLU report: “San Francisco police officers are significantly less likely to find any evidence of criminality in searches of African Americans or Latinos.”
  • In Greensboro, N.C. (pdf), blacks made up 55 percent of traffic stops and were more than twice as likely (102 percent) to be stopped. However, white drivers were 9 percent more likely to have contraband.
  • Between 2011 and 2015, the Metropolitan Nashville (Tenn.) Police Department stopped an average of 1,122 per 1,000 black drivers—more black drivers than were living in the entire county. Black drivers in Nashville were five times more likely than whites to be stopped multiple times in a year.
  • Every year, more than 75 percent of the people who were stopped and frisked by the New York City Police Department were black or Latino.
  • In Philadelphia, African Americans accounted for 69 percent of stop and frisks from January to June 2017 in a city in which they are 48 percent of the population.

Almost every city that conducts these kinds of studies finds the same results. But it is not just traffic and pedestrian stops that reveal racially biased policing. The Hamilton Project reveals that, even though blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, blacks are 6.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug use.

And when it comes to police shootings, the data is incontrovertible. A study by the American Journal of Public Health shows that black men are three times more likely to die from police shootings. Even when they are not violent and have committed no crimes, black people are still shot and killed by police officers at higher rates than whites. Although black people make up 13 percent of the population, in 2017, 34 percent of the people who were shot and killed when they were unarmed and not attacking were black, Mapping Police Violence reports.


To be clear, the disproportionate number of black people shot by police is not because black people commit more crimes. Data from the Washington Post’s police database shows that there is no correlation between crime rates by race and the disproportionate number of police shootings.

As Justin Nix, a researcher at the University of Louisville, said, according to the Washington Post, “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black.”


The facts don’t support the narrative. There is no reason to insert black-on-black crime into any discussion of police violence. There is no statistical basis for the way African-American communities are inordinately victimized by law enforcement. Black criminality is a myth.

All this week, The Root will examine policing in black America. We will delve into the problems, the perspectives and the solutions to the inequities in how the law is enforced in communities of color across America.


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Dosadi's failed experiment

Thank you for writing this article. It is about got-damned time someone paid attention to the deliberate and systematic repression of Black-American citizens by the state. I hope as part of this series that the Root looks at the complicity of the media in under-reporting white crimes and the deliberate representation of Black-Americans as the single source of crime.