Race Relations and Law Enforcement

Jason L. Riley, Imprimis, January 2015


New York City has the largest school system in America. Eighty percent of black kids in New York public schools are performing below grade level. And a big part of the problem is a black subculture that rejects attitudes and behaviors that are conducive to academic success. Black kids read half as many books and watch twice as much television as their white counterparts, for example. In other words, a big part of the problem is a culture that produces little black girls and boys who are already worried about acting and sounding white by the time they are in second grade.

Another big part of the problem is a reluctance to speak honestly about these cultural shortcomings. Many whites fear being called racists. And many black leaders have a vested interest in blaming black problems primarily on white racism, so that is the narrative they push regardless of the reality. Racism has become an all-purpose explanation for bad black outcomes, be they social or economic. If you disagree and are white, you’re a bigot. If you disagree and are black, you’re a sell-out.

The shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last year touched off a national discussion about everything except the aberrant behavior of so many young black men that results in such frequent encounters with police. We talked about racial prejudice, poverty, unemployment, profiling, the tensions between law enforcement and poor black communities, and so forth. Rarely did we hear any discussion of black crime rates.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men in the U.S., and around 90 percent of the perpetrators are also black. Yet for months we’ve had protesters nationwide pretending that our morgues are full of young black men because cops are shooting them. Around 98 percent of black shooting deaths do not involve police. In fact, a cop is six times more likely to be shot by someone black than the opposite. The protestors are pushing a false anti-cop narrative, and everyone from the president on down has played along.

Any candid debate on race and criminal justice in this country would have to start with the fact that blacks commit an astoundingly disproportionate number of crimes. Blacks constitute about 13 percent of the population, yet between 1976 and 2005 they committed more than half of all murders in the U.S. The black arrest rate for most offenses–including robbery, aggravated assault, and property crimes–is typically two to three times their representation in the population. So long as blacks are committing such an outsized amount of crime, young black men will be viewed suspiciously and tensions between police and crime-ridden communities will persist. The U.S. criminal justice system, currently headed by a black attorney general who reports to a black president, is a reflection of this reality, not its cause. If we want to change negative perceptions of young black men, we must change the behavior that is driving those perceptions. But pointing this out has become almost taboo. How can we even begin to address problems if we won’t discuss them honestly?


The Left wants to blame these outcomes on racial animus and poverty, but back in the 1940s and ’50s, when racial discrimination was legal and black poverty was much higher than today, the black crime rate was lower. The Left wants to blame these outcomes on “the system,” but blacks have long been part of running that system. Black crime and incarceration rates spiked in the 1970s and ’80s in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia under black mayors and black police chiefs. Some of the most violent cities in the U.S. today are run by blacks.

Some insist that our jails and prisons are teeming with young black men due primarily to racist drug laws, but the reality is that the drug laws are neither racist nor driving the black incarceration rate. It’s worth remembering that the harsher penalties for crack cocaine offenses that were passed in the 1980s were supported by most of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, who at the time headed the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Crack was destroying black communities and many black political leaders wanted dealers to face longer sentences. In other words, black legislators in Washington led the effort to impose tougher drug laws, a fact often forgotten by critics today.

When these laws passed, even their opponents didn’t claim that they were racist. Those charges came later, as the racially disparate impact of the laws became apparent. What’s been lost in the discussion is whether these laws leave law-abiding blacks better off. Do you make life in the ghetto harder or easier by sending thugs home sooner rather than later? Liberal elites would have us deny what black ghetto residents know to be the truth. These communities aren’t dangerous because of racist cops or judges or sentencing guidelines. They’re dangerous mainly due to black criminals preying on black victims.

Nor is the racial disparity in prison inmates explained by the enforcement of drug laws. Blacks are about 37.5 percent of the population in state prisons, which house nearly 90 percent of the nation’s inmates. Remove drug offenders from that population and the percentage of black prisoners only drops to 37 percent. What drives black incarceration rates are violent offenses, not drug offenses. Blacks commit violent crimes at seven to ten times the rate that whites do. The fact that their victims tend to be of the same race suggests that young black men in the ghetto live in danger of being shot by each other, not cops. Nor is this a function of blacks being picked on by cops who are “over-policing” certain neighborhoods. Research has long shown that the rate at which blacks are arrested is nearly identical to the rate at which crime victims identify blacks as their assailants. The police are in these communities because that’s where the 911 calls originate.


Last year, President Obama announced yet another federal initiative aimed at helping blacks–an increase in preschool education, even though studies (including those released by his own administration) have shown no significant impacts in education from such programs. He said that he wants to increase reading proficiency and graduation rates for minority students, yet he opposes school voucher programs that are doing both. He continues to call for job-training programs of the sort that study after study has shown to be ineffective.


After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, President Obama explained the black response to the verdict this way. Blacks understand, he said, that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to that history. In other words, Obama was doing exactly what the Left has been conditioning blacks to do since the 1960s, which is to blame black pathology on the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

This is a dodge. That legacy is not holding down blacks half as much as the legacy of efforts to help. Underprivileged blacks have become playthings for intellectuals and politicians who care more about reveling in their good intentions or winning votes than advocating behaviors and attitudes that have allowed other groups to get ahead. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement has become an industry that does little more than monetize white guilt. Martin Luther King and his contemporaries demanded black self-improvement despite the abundant and overt racism of their day. King’s self-styled successors, living in an era when public policy bends over backwards to accommodate blacks, insist that blacks cannot be held responsible for their plight so long as someone, somewhere in white America, is still prejudiced.

The more fundamental problem with these well-meaning liberal efforts is that they have succeeded, tragically, in convincing blacks to see themselves first and foremost as victims. Today there is no greater impediment to black advancement than the self-pitying mindset that permeates black culture. White liberals think they are helping blacks by romanticizing bad behavior. And black liberals are all too happy to hustle guilty whites.


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