Here is an indisputable fact: As a demographic class, black men are over-represented in the prison system. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 38% of federal inmates are black, compared to 13% of the general population; about 93% of inmates are male, compared to 49% of the general population.
What is up for debate: Why?
How this question is answered falls along political lines. It shapes perceptions to Black Lives Matter and the acceptance of the notion of systemic racism.
Let’s look at some of the explanations.
The simplistic view relies on the notion that the justice system is blind and that incarceration is completely color-blind. This is that black men are incarcerated at a higher rate because black men are that much more likely to commit crimes worthy of incarceration.
This need not be a racist position. Not all of the people who use it are arguing that blacks are genetically more violent, or more criminal, than people of other races. It could be that black Americans, for whatever reason, are less likely to succeed economically.
There is another part of this argument: It’s not that blacks as a race are more likely to commit crimes, but rather that blacks are disproportionately poor, and poor people are more likely to commit crimes.
It’s true that the median income for black households is about half of that of whites, a consistent trend since at least the 1960s. And poverty does seem to be more linked to incidence of violent crime than whether someone is white or black.
Proponents of this position, then, would argue that the proper way to address the issue is by finding routes for blacks out of poverty. There’s nothing wrong with the police enforcement or judicial system; there’s something about poverty that encourages violent crime.
Unlike crime, race, and poverty statistics, the systemic racism premise is more difficult to quantify. “All things being equal” is a nigh-on-impossible state. There are plenty of sociological studies that show that people of all races place more negative prejudicial assessments for blacks than for whites. The doll test is probably the most famous of these.
However, skeptics question the validity and relevance of those results. The doll test, in particular, was used to encourage integration, but the black-oriented media outlet The Root acknowledges that social factors related to racial self-concept of blacks might actually support segregation, and that at any rate there are questions about the sample size and the lack of a control group.
Supporters of the position of racial bias in the justice system point to disparities in sentencing based on drugs: While crack and cocaine are variants, crack is much more likely to be used by blacks, and sentencing for crack has been higher for decades.
We have two competing views:
- Black people are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate because they’re more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to commit crimes.
- Black people are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate because the system is rigged against them.
The first view certainly has data support, although there’s also a question about whether it simply moves the bias. If poor people are more likely to be held responsible for violent crimes, is it because poverty makes people violent, because people who can’t find a way to economic success in traditional routes are more likely to turn to violent crime, or because rich people can afford better lawyers?
How about: All of the above, for both racial and class disparities?
Opponents of the premise on which Black Lives Matter is based often act as if black people are whining, or are exaggerating the bias. They point to Michael Brown’s previous criminal acts, as well as how he apparently grabbed the police officer’s gun. They insist that black people wouldn’t be shot down if they would comply, that the disproportionate violence justifies officers entering into situations with poor people—black or otherwise—with a heightened level of anxiety.
However, Brock Turner is a white, reasonably-affluent male who committed a violent, despicable crime and served only three months in prison.
Which part of “white, reasonably-affluent male” got him that sentence?
Certainly not the “male” part.
If blacks are somewhat disproportionately represented in prison, men are overwhelmingly overrepresented. Half of the general population is male, but twelve out of every thirteen prisoners in the federal system are male.
The statistics on males should lead to a similar discussion: Is the criminal system sexist? Why is there no prominent #MaleLivesMatter? Society as a whole appears to simply accept the notion that men commit violent crimes at a much higher rate (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/wo.pdf) than women do, even as many of us openly balk about a similar claim about blacks.
Regardless, though, Brock Turner did not get a slap on the hand for being male. The system is used to giving long sentences to males.
So it’s either class or race that primarily saved Turner from a more serious fate. In his sentencing, the judge made reference to the importance of Turner’s future.
There is reason in the position that poor blacks receive more than punishment in the criminal justice system because they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.
At the same time, there is reason in the position that blacks are treated unfairly by a system that has been devised, for several hundred years, to treat non-whites as inherently lesser humans.
Both of these are issues worth addressing, and worth finding solutions for. Rather than arguing amongst ourselves about which is the “right” stand to have, we should be working to address both of them.