No Justice in Justices’ Comments on Black Criminality

Jerry Large, Seattle Times, October 27, 2010

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Most recently it was a couple of Washington State Supreme Court justices who offered their opinions on black criminality. Richard Sanders and James Johnson said black people are overrepresented in the prison system strictly because we commit more crimes and that discrimination in the system is not a contributing factor. Apparently there is no bias when the people deciding your fate assume from the get-go that you are inclined toward criminality.

I prefer intelligent, nuanced, sensitive comments myself, but what really bothers me are the underlying inequalities that are so much harder to address than a single person’s attitude. That’s the stuff we can and should fix.

I would have amended the judges’ remarks on crime by saying that sometimes circumstances increase the rates of certain crimes.

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Black people have higher poverty rates than most Americans and higher poverty is associated with higher crime rates. That effect is aggravated by longterm poverty and bias.

More equality of opportunity would change that formula.

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Black Americans have been especially hard hit, facing biases that keep poverty high.

Poverty and racial biases reinforce each other.

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If on top of that, employers are reluctant to hire you even when you are qualified, then you may go long stretches without wealth. You may find other avenues for income. A 2004 Princeton University study showed that employers are more likely to hire white ex-cons than black men with clean records.

If this situation lasts for generations, you may not have the same family or community support for climbing out of this hole that someone else might have. You can predict school performance by family income and the mother’s educational level.

You may have more health problems, including more mental-health problems, which will affect both your ability to get work and your behavior in general.

You may get into trouble with the law. And if, when arrested, you are more likely to be convicted and imprisoned than other people, you may re-enter society with less chance of success than before.

And what about the kids you left behind? And what about the neighborhood? Does it decline?

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Break this cycle, and we will all live in a less distorted and more pleasant place.

[An account of the remarks of Washington Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson can be read here.]

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