Do blacks commit more crimes than whites, or are they just more likely to be punished?

It’s a legitimate question–widely debated and honestly, difficult to answer. Making matters more difficult, many statistics gathered on the topic appear to have been compiled with underlying motives based on what the researcher wanted to find.

One also has to make sure to find percentages as opposed to outright numbers, since the U.S. is a predominantly white country. Numbers without respect to each race’s population are relatively useless.

After pouring over a strange combination of ignorant forums and well-researched blog posts, I found that several sites listed extraordinarily conflicting statistics with little, if any documentation. I did not at all feel comfortable including any of these in this blog post.

Instead, I opted to look at the FBI’s statistics on arrests and compare it to the racial breakdown of people who actually end up in prison.

In 2010, 7,066,154 whites and 2,846,862 blacks were arrested for some reason or another. In the U.S. in 2010, the population included 223,553,265 whites and 38,929,319 blacks, meaning that 3.16 percent of whites were arrested in 2010 while 7.31 percent of blacks were. Bottom line: blacks were around 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites.

For a breakdown of which group was more likely to be arrested for which crime, check out the FBI’s crime report.

It is also important to note that non-violent crimes, such as drug possession, were included in the report. Assumptions about the violence of one race over another cannot be made strictly based on who is arrested more often, or even who is convicted more often. One would have to delve further into statistics regarding violent crimes only.

So who is more likely to end up in prison?

Statistics from 2009 showed that, per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same gender and race, 708 were white and 4,749 were black. These statistics allow for an easy comparison: blacks are almost seven times more likely to end up in prison than whites.

There is undeniably disparity between the amounts of whites and blacks arrested and ultimately imprisoned. Now, back to the debate. Here is what I deduced to be some of each side’s primary explanations for these statistics (I am not attesting to the factuality of these explanations, merely that these are the points repeatedly made by each side):

Blacks commit more crimes:

  • The most crime-ridden cities are continually cities with large black minorities or even black majorities.
  • Because of this, there are more cops patrolling these areas, leading to the inevitability that more blacks will be “stopped and searched.” (This is meant to combat the other side’s argument of racial profiling.)
  • Blacks are more likely than whites to become involved in violent cultures such as gangs.
  • Poverty cannot be considered to have a positive correlation with crime, because in places like West Virginia, for example, there are high rates of poverty but low rates of crime, as well as a mostly white population.

Blacks are more likely to be punished:

  • Black people are more likely to receive longer sentences than those handed out in nearly identical cases with white defendants.
  • Also, they’re more likely to be subjected to “stop and search,” be picked up as a suspect from a vague description of an offender just for being in the area and be identified by a victim even if innocent.
  • There is still an underlying fear in society that blacks are often criminals–not only exemplified by concepts like driving while black and shopping while black, but also in the way that, for example, whites sometimes shy away or get nervous when they’re walking alone at night and a black male is walking toward them.
  • The media–and not just the nightly news, but movies and shows like Cops as well–are far more likely to show black men committing or being suspected of committing crimes, perpetuating the stigma.
Now let’s look on a lesser scale than violent crimes and prison sentences: car searches.
A study of Maryland highways in 1998 yielded some interesting results:
  • The motorists utilizing Maryland’s highways at this time were approximately 78 percent white, 17 percent black and about 5 percent other minorities
  • From 1995 to 1997, the number and race of people stopped and searched by police was recorded
    • About 77 percent were minorities, and 70 percent of that were black. The remaining 23 percent were white.
    • Additional data collected included how many of the drivers who were stopped and searched did not have drugs. 67 percent of the drivers in this category were black.
Testimony from hispanic New Jersey state trooper Emblez Longoria in 1999 suggested that this issue was not specific to Maryland. Longoria said that co-workers and bosses were pressuring him to stop black and hispanic drivers illegally simply to fulfill quota. He alleged that he was harassed and denied promotions when he refused to do so.
Is it really reasonable that blacks are that much more likely than whites to be speeding or otherwise driving recklessly enough to get pulled over? Or is this an issue of racial profiling? If it is profiling, is it fair to assume that it could translate to profiling with other, more serious crimes as well? Personally, I know many white drivers who speed (myself included). A study that looked into some of these issues could prove to be a helpful follow-up.
The statistics are there. Blacks are more likely percentage-wise than whites both to be arrested and to end up in prison. Is this because they are actually more likely to commit the crimes they’re being convicted of, or because our court system is unfairly biased in favor of whites?
What do you think?
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26 responses to “Do blacks commit more crimes than whites, or are they just more likely to be punished?

  1. I definitely think after reading this it’s hard to deny that there is at least something wrong with this picture. It’s not easy to understand how those numbers add up in a logical, just way. Although this is something that is brought up commonly, it’s usually backed with suspicions of racial profiling, yet this article reveals this being admitted, and also brings up facts such as how certain areas are targeted and patrolled more.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! It’s definitely something that I think should have more thorough investigation. Even if the statistics aren’t skewed or unfair in some way, perhaps there should be measures being thought of to bring more equality to crime rates between whites and blacks.

  3. I think this is a very thought provoking blog post. I had not really given the situation any thought at all to be quite honest. But I’m a 20-something, white girl, so really, this is to be expected a little. This is definitely something that should be addressed by the right people, but I also feel as though it will continue to be an ongoing issue, both large and small, no matter when this is discussed in the next few decades.

    • I think you make a great point–it happens in multiple areas where when we can’t relate directly to things, we often don’t give much thought to them. Quite natural. Who would you consider the “right people?” What do you think it would take to create change instead of simply allowing it to remain an issue?

      • I think the “right people” might not necessarily be those in places of extremely high power, such as representatives to the national government. I think this is something that needs to be done on a smaller scale, such as within cities themselves with a combination of more education for police officers on the matter of profiling and possibly city council members (or someone in their type of position) to make sure this education is completed and reaffirmed after certain periods of time. In essence, while this is a problem nationwide, it needs to be addressed on a more local level to make it more effective (affective?).

  4. hmm well I think you have a point about the fact that research on this kind of stuff tends to be biased, but I think it’s kind of difficult to deny that racial profiling is a major problem. Just from a statistical standpoint, if you’re being searched more often you’ll be caught more often. I guess you can also argue that with crimes like theft could be a “crime of necessity” (a controversial concept on its own, I realize), and with the high rates of minorities in poverty, that kind of thing could serve as evidence supporting blacks committing more crimes. Anyways, that is a whole lot of nonsense rambling, good luck with your project, bro. =)

    • Definitely undeniable that more searches would lead to more convictions. Poverty is an issue I considered including more in this post, but as you said it’s controversial as to whether or not it’s a valid excuse, if you will, for engaging in crime. Thanks for the input!

  5. This is always a difficult issue to discuss.

    The fact that this is an issue that plays into all three levels of the government of the United States is something I find to be more disturbing. The Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government all appeared to be plagued with bigotry. Laws are made favoring a group of people, enforced in favor of a people, and interpreted in favor of a people.

    All the facts and statistics are interesting. However, will we ever really know the extent of this?

    • It’s something that I honestly wish I had the time and resources to look into more. It’d take years, I think, of compiling specific cases and statistics and, as you said, looking at it from multiple angles of government to recover uncover the truth behind the statistics.

  6. Short answer: I believe that blacks MAY commit more crimes than whites, but if so, not by much, and blacks are WAY more likely to be punished.

    Long answer: I believe that “blacks” may commit more crimes (percentage wise) than whites, however, I would say that this IS because of the much higher rate of poverty among blacks specifically, and other minorities generally. I would also say that these statistics don’t represent reality at all. I believe there is a misrepresentation of blacks in so many ways and that is the primary cause of these increased instances, citing all the information that you have given above–if you have not looked into Tim Wise’s work on “white privilege” in regards to this topic, I would recommend it. There is simply no way to look at these figures with any accuracy–how many times do people in small towns (or even in towns that are primarily white) get off with warnings instead of being arrested simply because they are white? That is a statistic that cannot be reliable. I could probably write a book on this topic, but I will end there for the sake of shortness. If you have any questions regarding this post or clarification of my ideas, please shoot me a message (via facebook or email).

    • I have looked into “white privilege,” and that’s definitely a relevant referral. I would love to write a book on this topic because the complexity obviously requires much more than a 900-word blog post. If blacks are committing more crimes… why? If blacks aren’t… why are they so much more likely to end up in jail? The psychology, socioeconomics, politics, etc. that contribute to the trend are, as you said, certainly not simple at all.

  7. I think it is hard to account for all of the factors that are present in something like this. The evidence presented in this argument for only has to do with actual arrests, not every single crime committed, which is impossible to measure. I don’t think the argument that blacks are more likely to commit a crime can really be made without more evidence than what has been presented. There is definitely something driving the difference in arrests but I don’t think we can assume that it has to do with solely the likelihood to commit a crime or that that is the driving factor.

    • Yes, it’s unfortunate that the FBI statistics don’t follow through to show actual convictions, but I certainly understand how painstaking of a process that would be. Some court cases take years to settle. I agree with you. It seems quite evasive what this driving factor is–that’s what I’d really like to find out!

  8. I think that it’s a little bit of both maybe?

    The judicial system has been racially favoring whites since it was founded way back when… However, it may not just be racially profiling, and obviously not everyone is doing it. There’s some bad apples in every system. So yes, I’m sure that it’s going on some places, but not everywhere with everyone.

    People tend to fall into their stereotyped role in society pretty easily. Regardless if the stereotype is based upon fact or not, if someone says you’re a bad person, you’ll probably be more likely to act in a way that society has paved for you. Though, this has many exceptions too.

    All in all, it’s probably a mix of racially profiling and people following their stereotypical roles in society.

    I’m not sure what else to say, but I hope that helped some?

    • Several good points. Essentially, it’s bad in any situation to make blanket statements.

      Also-love the psychological approach! There are several studies based on what can happen when one is told at a young age (whether directly or indirectly) essentially how they’re going to perform and who they’re supposed to be in life–it’s scary how much of an effect it can have on the actual outcome.

      Do you think there’s a good way to stop people from falling into their stereotype?

  9. I would say that the regional demographics play a part in the number of arrests, i.e. large cities with major gang issues, or areas near the Mexican border where illegal immigration is a constant issue. In those areas, the police have to constantly be on the offensive in looking for crime. Not saying that the police are justified in their practices on how they attempt to handle their job, hell, enough of them are on their own little power trip as is. But stereotyping has benefits when the majority of gang members are minorities, thus its more logical for the police to question the minorities’ integrity a bit more. Morally and ethically wrong, yes, but may

    I do think that our judicial system is flawed from the get-go, however. According to the stats above, we conservatively arrested 10 million people last year, with blacks being much more likely to be arrested. How many people reside in our prison systems currently? And compare that to any other nation. Or prison systems house almost one quarter of the the worlds total prisoners, and we hold only about 5% of the total population to boot (just found that in NY times article http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all.) That is a ridiculous statistic as is.

    I’ve always heard from friends and half known it from where I grew up (small town Ohio) that, for example, if you are in Akron, you won’t be stopped unless you’re “black or have a TV in your hands.” Its not often you hear about gangs composed of mostly white people. The only gangs where that may have been the case would probably have been the Italian and Irish mafia at one point in time, but they had codes of honor that they stuck to. The media tells you the horrors of what inner city gangs do on a regular basis and it makes people who aren’t even exposed to that type of violence want justice for it. “Gangland” on the History channel can give a decent amount of background info for people who know nothing on the matter. But in watching that show you hear about “gang initiations” and what not, and its hard to believe what people will do to get into a gang. Or the murders they can carry out. Most of the time when you hear of somebody killing an entire family, children included, you would assume that the person had mental issues and “went of the deep end” if you will. But the brain washing that occurs in gangs is one of the same as a mental illness, as they may not feel that they are do something wrong, because they were ordered to do it.

    So in response to the last question in your blog: I think that blacks are more likely to be accused of committing a crime because they are more focused on by police forces. Police in the big cities constantly have an eye out for blacks because it probably seems more likely they will commit a crime, and police in small towns and rural areas, like where I live, focus on them more because the stigma they tend to carry in the eyes of the masses.

    • We are definitely arrest-happy in this country. Many of those arrests are non-violent and drug-related. I think that’s where we differentiate since many other countries mostly only throw violent criminals behind bars. It is undeniable that gangs consist mostly of minorities, and I think you’re right that it essentially perpetuates stereotyping and profiling, whether consciously or not.

      So, if you were in a police’s position, would you try to take an approach other than the stereotypical one that many seem to take now? Or is that something that’s too hard to say until you’re genuinely in that position?

  10. I think it is absolutely a systemic issue here. The entire criminal justice system determines what is and isn’t a crime, by the very act of arrest and conviction. And the system is biased. I believe this is due to a number of factors, including subconscious adherence to racial biases, the fact that keeping us (all races) divided is better for the powers-that-be than us united, and the market itself, and its strong tendency to take (and keep) sides. All these factors add up to an unfortunate and discriminatory system.

    • There’s definitely agreement among the comments here that the way the system is set up allows for too much subjectivity and bias, which is unfortunate.

      I’m interested in your theory on racial division being better for the powers-that-be. Do you think that, if not for the stereotypes, stigmas and essential segregation among people of different races, they’d be more likely to unite and uprise against the government on a more regular basis? If such motivation is responsible for the very unequal numbers of arrests and convictions between whites and blacks, that would be unconstitutional, to say the least.

  11. Undeniably, there’s still an old man’s club mentality that still exists in certain parts of the United States. When you look at positions of power- CEO’s, Presidents, elected officials, etc, it is easy to see that the plurality controls an unusually large majority. It’s not hard to imagine that extending into everyday life in measurable ways. Whether or not this plays any part in the punishment of minorities by law enforcement is at best debatable but it is a factor worthy of examination.

    • I agree, and honestly, I’m interested in seeing if the typical characteristics of those in power will evolve some as the upcoming generation begins to obtain such positions. And, consequently, if that will have any affect on the arrests and convictions statistics. What do you think?

  12. This is an issue I’ve always had trouble gathering reliable facts about. I think this blog finally sheds an accurate light on it. It is certainly not fair that it exists, but racial profiling is something that some people are taught at such a young age that once they’re an adult it is second nature. This factor makes ending it difficult. Profiling can really sway statistics sometimes, and I think there is a lot of gray area here. it is important to go deeper into the question, “Are there any reasons people of certain races commit more of certain crimes?” Because if there are any reasons beyond environmental and life-style, but rather neurological or scientific, that would be a helpful angle to take on the subject.

    • Interesting thoughts! Being a psychology minor, I completely agree that understanding the reasons behind the statistics could be an instrumental factor in perhaps being able to alter them.

  13. I don’t go around hating people…..anybody! But it seems to me that when blacks come into or move into an area, it begins to change, and not for the better. I see how things were, and now how things are. I believe it’s a combination of many things. Is it learned behavior (such as the envirement they were brought up in) or is it genetics? What do you think? Please send me a reply. bperhamsky@gmail.com

  14. I just came across this 2 year old post. Do you realize your math is all messed up?

    You said:
    “In 2010, 7,066,154 whites and 2,846,862 blacks were arrested for some reason or another. In the U.S. in 2010, the population included 223,553,265 whites and 38,929,319 blacks, meaning that 0.03 percent of whites were arrested in 2010 while 0.17 percent of blacks were. Bottom line: blacks were around 5.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites.”

    The correct math yields:

    7066154/223553265 whites = 3.16% arrest rate (not “0.03 percent”)
    2846862/38929319 blacks = 7.31% arrest rate (not “0.17 percent”)
    ratio of 3.16% to 7.31% = blacks 2.3 times more likely to be arrested (not “5.5 times”)

    • Thanks, Spencer. Not sure what was going on with the .17, but I clearly forget the obvious step with changing to a percentage with the .03. Will fix it momentarily.

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