Ron Unz, American Conservative, March 2010


{snip} While fears of perceived racial insensitivity may force many critics to choose their words carefully, widespread belief that Hispanics have high or perhaps very high crime rates seems to exist.


If we examine the data in the most recent 2008 BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] report, published in December 2009, we discover the total Hispanic incarceration rate, while far below that of blacks, is still almost 150 percent above the white average, having fallen a little from the 170 percent figure in 2000. {snip}

The traditional liberal explanation for this would be that Hispanics are considerably poorer than whites, that poverty and racism cause crime, and that a white-dominated criminal justice system is likely to be biased against suspects of a darker hue. {snip}

The most obvious of these [factors] are age and gender. An overwhelming fraction of serious crime is committed by the young, young males in particular. This has been the case throughout recorded history and remains true everywhere in today’s world. Almost all American crimes are committed by individuals aged 15-44, with the age range 18-29 representing the sharp peak of criminal activity. Also, the 14-to-1 ratio of males to females in the U.S. prison system provides a sense of just how heavily crime is a male phenomenon; for violent offenses, the ratio is even higher.

And as it happens, the age distribution in America for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites is quite different. The median age for Hispanics is around 27, near the absolute peak of the prime-crime age range. But the median white age is over 40, putting nearly half the white population above the likely age range for committing crimes. While it is certainly true that Hispanic 23-year-olds have much greater criminal tendencies than white 45-year-olds, a more useful question is the relative criminality of Hispanics and whites of the same age. Also, many Hispanics are immigrants, and since immigrants are more likely to be male, there will be a gender skew in the general Hispanic population. Therefore, let us consider the Hispanic imprisonment rate relative to the number of males in the high-crime age range.

Suddenly the numbers change quite a bit, with the relative Hispanic-to-white total incarceration rate dropping by a third or more for several of the age cohorts. But even these lower figures may still be a bit misleading. As a recent front page New York Times story pointed out, over half of all federal prosecutions these days are for immigration-related offenses, and since a huge fraction of illegal immigrants are from south of the border, the 10 percent or so of U.S. prison inmates who are in federal custody might significantly distort our ethnic imprisonment statistics. Anyway, offenses such as robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault, and theft are almost always prosecuted in state courts, so it makes sense to separate these street crimes from cases of illegal nannies convicted of illegal nannying.


Our first discovery is that even before adjusting for age, the overall Hispanic incarceration rate drops from 150 percent above the white rate down to just 80 percent above, presumably reflecting the exclusion of immigration-related federal offenses. We can now use census data to estimate the number of prime-crime-age young males in the two groups, and since there is some uncertainty in deciding which age range is most appropriate for normalization purposes, we should probably explore the results with several different choices, such as 18-29, 15-34, and 15-44.5 (Many observers believe that the number of Hispanic illegal immigrants in America is sharply underestimated by the government; if so, this would correspondingly reduce the relative Hispanic imprisonment rate.)

The overall age-adjusted national imprisonment rates are shown in Chart 1. Hispanic incarceration rates are now between 13 and 31 percent above the white average, depending upon which age range we choose for normalization purposes. By contrast, the claims of extremely high relative black incarceration rates widely publicized several years ago by The Sentencing Project remain correct even after these age adjustments.

Next, if we examine the relative age-adjusted Hispanic imprisonment rate for individual states, we find huge variations. In a number of states, the Hispanic rate is below the white rate, sometimes far below. For example, whites in West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana are imprisoned at three to four times the Hispanic rate relative to their share of the crime-age population. To some degree, this reflects the time-lag impact of the recent arrival of large numbers of Hispanics in these locations, since most of the white convicts entered prison years ago, but such low relative rates of Hispanic incarceration are still intriguing. And even in Florida, where Hispanics have been a large fraction of the total population for decades, the white age-adjusted imprisonment rate is still twice as high as the Hispanic rate.


Moreover, if we consider weighted-average age-adjusted Hispanic imprisonment ratios excluding those outlying cases of the Northeastern states, we discover that the remaining figure moves into close parity with white incarceration rates. Since Hispanics are still considerably poorer than whites, this is a striking result. Also, crime rates are always higher in densely populated urban areas than in suburbs or rural communities, and since Hispanics are three times as likely as whites to live in cities, their relatively low imprisonment rates become even more surprising.


The substantial regional or cultural differences in apparent white criminality are easily illustrated when we consider the age-adjusted Hispanic/white incarceration ratios in the two most heavily Hispanic states, California and Texas, which together contain roughly half of all Hispanics living in the United States. If we normalize the incarceration rate to the number of males aged 15-34, California Hispanics are imprisoned at 9 percent above the local white rate, while Texas Hispanics are imprisoned at 14 percent below the local white rate. Since California is one of America’s most liberal “pro-minority” states and Texas one of the most staunchly “law-and-order” conservative ones, and the Hispanics in both states are overwhelmingly Mexican, these somewhat unexpected imprisonment ratios probably reflect the relative criminality of the local white populations more than anything else.


But there are good reasons to doubt the plausibility of that horrific scenario. First, contrary to popular belief, the majority of today’s Hispanics are already American-born, and this is certainly true of those in the highest-crime age groups. For example, two-thirds of today’s Latinos aged 18-24 are American citizens by birth. This figure has risen from less than half 20 years ago, while crime rates have simultaneously plummeted nationwide, with relative Hispanic imprisonment rates also dropping significantly since 2000. If American-born Mexicans and Central Americans had the exceptionally high crime rates suggested in that 2006 study, it is strange that we have seen no evidence of this either in the trends of national crime data or in imprisonment statistics.


Take five minutes to consider the list of America’s urban crime rates provided on Wikipedia, and you will notice an intriguing pattern. Nearly all of the most heavily Latino cities have low or even extremely low crime rates, and virtually none have rates much above the national average. Eighty percent Latino El Paso has the lowest homicide and robbery rates of any major city in the continental United States. This is not what we would expect to find if Hispanics had crime rates far higher than whites. Individual cities may certainly have anomalously low crime rates for a variety of reasons, but the overall trend of crime rates compared to ethnicity seems unmistakable.

But let us explore white and Hispanic crime rates in a more systematic fashion, drawing our data from the FBI Uniform Crime Report. Consider the five whitest cities in America: Colorado Springs, Colorado; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Portland, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and Lincoln, Nebraska. These cities’ populations average 76 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent black. Their crime rates are generally far below the national urban average, with less than half the homicide and robbery rates and a 30 percent lower violent-crime rate. Perhaps we can consider these figures as a reasonable approximation to the general “white urban crime rate.” These crime averages may be partly due to the local black and Hispanic populations, but since these cities are so overwhelmingly white, this estimate for the white crime rates is about as close as we can hope to get.


Now let us consider the five most Hispanic cities in America: Corpus Christi, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Miami, Florida; Santa Ana, California; and El Paso, Texas. Together they total over 3 million in population, averaging 68 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, and 6 percent black. The ethnicities and crime rates of these cities are displayed in Chart 6.

Overall, the crime rates for these most heavily Hispanic cities are generally low, with violent crime 10 percent below the national urban average and the homicide rate 40 percent lower. On the other hand, the crime rates are still well above those of the white cities we considered above. In fact, the white homicide and violent crime rates are almost one-third lower. This provides some evidence for a higher Hispanic crime rate.

But this evidence is not particularly strong. First, the Hispanic cities are much larger than the white ones, with nearly double the average population. Also, Miami is an extreme outlier, with nearly twice as much crime as the other four Hispanic cities, and shifts the average considerably. If we exclude Miami, half the difference between the crime rates of the most Hispanic and the whitest cities disappears.

Even more striking, the average crime rates for the two most Hispanic cities on our list–Santa Ana and El Paso, each 80 percent Hispanic–are actually below our white urban average, and below the very low crime figures for 86 percent white Lincoln, the single whitest city in the nation. So although some heavily Hispanic cities have higher crime rates than some heavily white ones, the pattern seems very mixed.

Furthermore, if we consider the overall list of American cities, it is easy to find a number of those with sizable Hispanic populations–30, 40, 50 percent or more Hispanic–that have crime rates below our white urban average. If Hispanic crime rates were much higher than those for whites, this would seem very unlikely.

Similar evidence emerges if we restrict our analysis to major cities of half a million people or more and compare the average crime rates for the five most heavily Hispanic cities–Albuquerque, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and El Paso–to the those of the five whitest–Oklahoma City, Columbus, Indianapolis, Seattle, and Portland. This time, the more Hispanic cities are the ones with the lower crime rates–10 percent below the white cities in homicide and 15 percent lower in violent crime. A particularly remarkable result is that gigantic Los Angeles–50 percent Hispanic and frequently perceived as a dangerous urban hellhole–has violent crime rates close to those of Portland, Oregon, the whitest major city in the nation at 74 percent. The Hispanic cities and their crime rates are displayed in Chart 7.

Here’s a final example, much closer to home. Consider two large and comparable American cities–San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington. Both are located on the West Coast, are overwhelmingly suburban and generally affluent, earn their living from the technology industry, are politically liberal, and have small black populations. Seattle is one of the whitest cities in America at 70 percent, with Asians being the largest minority; Hispanics number only 5 percent. By contrast, San Jose is over 50 percent larger in size and although mostly white and Asian, is one-third Hispanic, with a large number of impoverished illegal immigrants. Seattle’s crime rate is indeed low, but the crime rate in San Jose is actually much lower: one-third lower for homicide or violent crime in general and with less than half the robbery rate. In fact, none of the most heavily white major cities in America have crime rates anywhere near as low as one-third Hispanic San Jose.


A reasonable question arises: are all of these crime rates actual, or might they be statistical artifacts produced by widespread underreporting of crime in heavily Hispanic areas? We cannot absolutely eliminate this possibility, but for homicides the reporting rate is always close to 100 percent, and since for all these cities the homicide and other serious crime rates tend to follow very similar patterns, there is no evidence that any of these racial patterns were warped by substantial underreporting.

Finally, let us consider the historical crime trends in my native Los Angeles, America’s second-largest city. During the middle of the 20th century, it was by far America’s whitest large city–roughly 80 percent white European by ancestry–and was generally regarded as America’s middle-class suburban paradise. But as the decades went by, LA increasingly became a byword for violence, crime, and ethnic conflict, with the deadly Watts and Rodney King racial riots filling television screens across the country. These enormously negative social changes coincided exactly with the population becoming less white, and although relatively few analysts were willing to suggest a direct causal relationship, I suspect it was noticed by all but the most obtuse observers. {snip}

Since then, these ethnic demographic trends have continued apace, and Los Angeles today ranks as America’s least white European large city. Half of the population is Hispanic, and many of these are impoverished illegal immigrants and their families. Yet all crime rates have been falling steadily over the last two decades, with homicide dropping a further 18 percent just last year. {snip}

This Los Angeles example also raises important questions about the official claims that Latino youths have exceptionally high rates of gang membership, 1800 percent higher than for whites. Los Angeles supposedly has among the worst Hispanic gang problems, yet the city’s actual crime rates are roughly the same as what they were back in the lily-white days of the early 1960s. So if these local gangs aren’t committing much crime, what exactly is the definition of a “gang”?


The evidence presented here powerfully refutes the widespread popular belief that America’s Hispanics have high crime rates. Instead, their criminality seems to fall near the center of the white national distribution, being somewhat higher than white New Englanders but somewhat lower than white Southerners. Taken as a whole, the mass of statistical evidence constitutes strong support for the “null hypothesis,” namely that Hispanics have approximately the same crime rates as whites of the same age.

We must bear in mind that most Hispanics are still of very recent immigrant origins and thus are considerably poorer than the average American. There actually does exist a connection between poverty and crime, even if liberals make such a claim, and since today’s Hispanic population has roughly the same crime rate as far more affluent whites, there is every reason to expect that this crime rate will drop further as Hispanics continue to move up the economic ladder. {snip}




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