The Color of Deception
Posted: Monday, October 18, 2004
By Tim Wise
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"A lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots."
Although this truism was penned long before the Internet, there is little doubt but that in the modern era, it has become more prescient than its author could ever have imagined.
When it comes to fast-moving lies, few can top one that has been distributed by white supremacists for the past several years. It is probably the most popular piece of racist propaganda in existence today, and because it relies on official government data, it comes across as sober, intelligent social science, rather than as the compendium of nonsense it happens to be.
The screed to which I refer is "The Color of Crime: Race, Crime and Violence in America," by white nationalist, Jared Taylor. Taylor is the publisher of the racist magazine, American Renaissance, and host of an annual conference, which attracts open neo-Nazis as well as a gaggle of academicians who proclaim black genetic inferiority.
According to Taylor, there are several "facts" about crime that have been hidden from view by the civil rights community. Among them:
--Blacks are much more dangerous than whites as evidenced by higher crime rates;
--Black criminals usually choose white victims and are far more likely to victimize whites than whites are to victimize blacks (both for regular violent crimes and hate crimes);
--Black crime rates justify racial profiling, since it only makes sense to focus law enforcement attention on those who commit a disproportionate share of crime; and finally,
--The interracial crime data makes white fear of African Americans perfectly rational.
But a close examination of these arguments proves that Taylor and his followers are either statistically illiterate, or knowingly deceive for political effect.
First, as for the disproportionate rate of violent crime committed by blacks, economic conditions explain the difference with white crime rates.
According to several studies, when community and personal economic status is comparable between whites and blacks, there are no significant racial crime differences (1). In other words, the implicit message of Taylor's report--that blacks are dangerous because they are black--is insupportable.
Secondly, to claim that blacks are more dangerous than whites because of official crime rates, is to ignore that when it comes to everyday threats to personal well-being, whites far and away lead the pack in all kinds of destructive behaviors: corporate pollution, consumer fraud, violations of health and safety standards on the job, and launching wars on the basis of deceptive evidence, to name a few. Each year, far more people die because of corporate malfeasance, occupational health violations and pollution than all the street crime combined, let alone street crime committed by African Americans (2).
[Stoking Fears About Interracial Crime - A Look at How Nazis Do Math]
Next, Taylor claims that most victims of black violent crime are white, and thus, that blacks are violently targeting whites. Furthermore, since only a small share of the victims of white criminals are black (only 4.4 percent in 2002, for example), this means that blacks are far more of a threat to whites than vice-versa.
But there are several problems with these claims.
To begin with, the white victim totals in the Justice Department's victimization data include those termed Hispanic by the Census, since nine in ten Latino/as are considered racially white by government record-keepers. Since Latino/as tend to live closer to blacks than non-Hispanic whites, this means that many "white" victims of "black crime" are Latino/a, and that in any given year, the majority of black crime victims would be people of color, not whites.
But even if we compute the white totals as Taylor does, without breaking out Hispanic victims of "black crime," his position is without merit.
In 2002, whites, including Latinos, were about 81.5 percent of the population (3). That same year, whites (including Latinos) were 51 percent of the victims of violent crimes committed by blacks, meaning that whites were victimized by blacks less often than would have been expected by random chance, given the extent to which whites were available to be victimized (4).
As for the claim that blacks victimize whites at rates that are far higher than the reverse, though true, this statistic is meaningless, for a few obvious but overlooked reasons, first among them the simple truth that if whites are more available as potential victims, we would naturally expect black criminals to victimize whites more often than white criminals would victimize blacks.
Examining data from 2002, there were indeed 4.5 times more black-on-white violent crimes than the reverse (5). While this may seem to support Taylor's position, it actually destroys it, because the interracial crime gap, though seemingly large, is smaller than random chance would have predicted.
The critical factor ignored by Taylor is the extent to which whites and blacks encounter each other in the first place. Because of ongoing racial isolation and de facto segregation, the two group's members do not encounter one another at rates commensurate with their shares of the population: a fact that literally torpedoes the claims in The Color of Crime.
As sociologist Robert O'Brian has noted (using Census data), the odds of a given white person (or white criminal) encountering a black person are only about three percent. On the other hand, the odds of a given black person (or black criminal) encountering a white person are nineteen times greater, or fifty-seven percent (6), meaning the actual interracial victimization gap between black-on-white and white-on-black crime is smaller than one would expect.
In 2002, blacks committed a little more than 1.2 million violent crimes, while whites committed a little more than three million violent crimes (7). If each black criminal had a 57 percent chance of encountering (and thus potentially victimizing) a white person, this means that over the course of 2002, blacks should have been expected to victimize roughly 690,000 whites. But in truth, blacks victimized whites only 614,176 times that year (8).
Conversely, if each white criminal had only a three percent chance of encountering and thus victimizing a black person, this means that over the course of 2002, whites would have been expected to victimize roughly 93,000 blacks. But in truth, whites victimized blacks 135,931 times: almost 50 percent more often than would be expected by random chance (9).
Indeed, given relative crime rates as well as rates of interracial encounter, random chance would have predicted the ratio of black-on-white to white-on-black victimization at roughly 7.4 to one. Yet, as the data makes clear, there were only 4.5 times more black-on-white crimes than white-on-black crimes in 2002. In other words, given encounter ratios, black criminals victimize whites less often than could be expected, while white criminals victimize blacks more often than could be expected.
[Lies About Hate Crimes - More Fun With Nazi Math]
Taylor's claims regarding hate crimes are even more ridiculous.
The Color of Crime asserts that blacks commit a disproportionate share of racial and ethnic hate crimes against whites, while white-on-black hate crimes are far less frequent. But the data simply doesn't support such a claim.
From 1995-2000, blacks were 65 percent of racial and ethnic hate-crime victims, while whites were 21 percent of such victims (10). Adjusted for population, any given black person was nearly twenty times more likely to be the victim of a racially motivated hate crime than any given white. In 2001, there were approximately 4.6 times more white-on-black than black-on-white hate crimes (11), despite the fact that whites were between six and seven times more available in the population to become victims.
Considering that blacks are much more likely to encounter whites than vice-versa, this last statistic is especially alarming. After all, if blacks are nineteen times more likely to encounter whites than whites are to encounter blacks, any given black person would have nineteen times more opportunities to commit an anti-white hate crime than a white person would have to commit an anti-black hate crime.
Since blacks are roughly one-sixth the size of the non-Hispanic white population, in order to determine the expected ratio of black-on-white hate crimes relative to white-on-black hate crimes given random chance, one must multiply the 19:1 black-on-white encounter ratio by one-sixth.
Once this computation is made, we find that differential rates of encounter and population availability would predict that if levels of racial hatred were equal between whites and blacks, and the willingness to commit a hate crime were equal between the two groups, in any given year there should be 3.15 times more black-on-white hate crimes than white-on-black hate crimes.
That in truth there are nearly five times more white-on-black hate crimes than the reverse suggests that blacks are much less likely to commit an anti-white hate crime than would be expected and whites are far more likely to commit an anti-black hate crime than would be expected.
[White Fear of Blacks - The Height of Irrationality]
Of course, above and beyond the mere statistical chicanery at the heart of Taylor's report, the larger point is that for Taylor and other racists to claim that black-on-white crime data justifies white fear of African Americans, or racial profiling by police is sheer ignorance.
Criminologists estimate that seventy percent of all crimes are committed by just seven percent of the offenders (12): a small bunch of repeat offenders who commit the vast majority of crimes. Since blacks committed roughly 1.2 million violent crimes in 2002, if seventy percent of these were committed by seven percent of the black offenders, this would mean that at most there were perhaps 390,000 individual black offenders that year (13). In a population of 29.3 million over the age of twelve, this would represent no more than 1.3 percent of the black population that committed a violent crime in 2002.
Since fewer than half of these would have chosen a non-Hispanic white victim (as noted previously), this means that less no more than seven-tenths of one percent of the black population would have victimized a white person in 2002: hardly the kind of fact that would warrant white fear of blacks as a group.
Furthermore, since whites were victimized 2.9 million times by other whites in 2002 (compared to roughly 614,000 times by blacks), this means that whites are 4.7 times more likely to be victimized by another white person than by a black person (14).
Thus, if crime data can justify white fear of blacks, it would also require whites to be terrified of white neighbors, co-workers, family and white strangers, for these are the folks most likely to victimize us.
[The Absurdity of Profiling]
As for profiling, Taylor insists that because of higher black crime rates, it only makes good sense to focus police efforts on the black community. But this is demonstrably ludicrous. If, as the Justice Department data suggests, blacks commit somewhere between 25-30 percent of violent crime in most years (23 percent in 2002), to profile blacks for crime will result in police being wrong, between 70-75 percent of the time (15).
And of course, profiling is not the typical method for uncovering serious already-committed crimes anyway, since solving such crimes logically involves using incident-specific information. Profiling is, instead, too often done as a way to uncover crimes, such as drug possession, that have yet to come to police attention.
As for drugs, there can be no doubt that profiling is irrational. According to federal data, blacks are only 13.5 percent of drug users, while non-Hispanic whites are over 70 percent of users (16). So to profile blacks for drugs is to guarantee little success in actually uncovering drug crimes.
[Conclusion - Why Bother Responding to Nazis?]
Some may wonder whether it makes sense to spend so much time and energy responding to the claims of someone who openly consorts with neo-Nazis, and whose agenda is so blatantly racist in nature. Though it would be nice not to have to respond to such silliness, the fact is, Taylor and his report have been cited approvingly by conservative columnists and talking heads, from Walter Williams, to David Horowitz, to the folks at the National Review, to Vanderbilt Law professor, Carol Swain.
What's more, with studies suggesting that white perceptions of black criminality play a prominent role in furthering racism, both attitudinally and institutionally (in terms of support for racially disparate and draconian crime policies), refuting this kind of foolishness carries with it important personal and policy implications as well.
However unappealing it may be to have to answer the racist claims of bigots and fascists, the fact remains that given the appeal of racist logic to so many, and given the strength of institutional racism as a defining force in American life, we can hardly afford the luxury of ignoring such positions, so as to "not give them legitimacy."
The sad fact is that racism already enjoys plenty of legitimacy, with or without a rebuttal. Ignoring this reality isn't likely to diminish its strength, but responding to it forcefully might, at the very least, dissuade impressionable minds from accepting the twisted logic offered by the racist right.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. His upcoming books, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull, 2005) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge Falmer, 2005) are available for pre-ordering at Amazon.com, and will be published in January.
1. L.J. Krivo and R.D. Peterson, "Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime," Social Forces 75(2) (December 1996); Barbara Chasin. Inequality and Violence in the United States. (NJ: Humanities Press International, 1997).
2. Jeffrey Reiman. ...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996); Lisa Cullen. A Job to Die For: Why So Many Americans are Killed, Injured or Made Ill at Work, and What to Do About It. (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2002).
3. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2003. Table No. 14: 16.
4. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2002, Statistical Tables, (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004), tables 40, 42, 46 and 48, and calculations by the author.
6. Robert O'Brian. "The Interracial Nature of Violent Crimes: A Reexamination." American Journal of Sociology 92(6) (1987).
7. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2002, Statistical Tables, (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004), tables 40, 42, 46 and 48, and calculations by the author.
10. United States Department of Justice, FBI Uniform Crime Reports, "Hate Crime Statistics," (various years, 1995-2000), and calculations by the author.
11. United States Department of Justice, FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 2002, "Hate Crime Statistics, 2001."
12. Peter Greenwood and Alan Abrahamse. Selective Incapacitation (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1982); Todd Clear, "Backfire: When Incarceration Increases Crime," Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Center, at: www.doc.state.ok.us/DOCS/OCJRC/Ocjrc96/Ocjrc7.htm. (1996).
13. If blacks committed 1.2 million violent crimes in 2002, and 70 percent of these were committed by 7 percent of the offenders, then 30 percent were committed by the remaining 93 percent of offenders. 30 percent of 1.2 million offenses is 360,000 offenses. 360,000 represents 93 percent of 387,000. If the remaining 70 percent of offenses (840,000) were committed by 7 percent of the population, this means that these crimes were committed by 27,000 hardcore offenders (7 percent of 387,000).
14. U.S. Department of Justice, 2004.
15. U.S Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, various years, 1993-2004.
16. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2003. Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Office of Applied Studies, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD.
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