Black Robes, White Justice
Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations
The Afrocentric Idea
Plural but Equal
Crime in the United States
Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1985: A National Crime Survey Report
“For many whites,” Mayor Edward Koch of New York City remarked last year, “crime has a black face.” A few days later, the city’s black police commissioner added that members of his own race had a similar perception. “It’s the blacks who are victims of criminality,” he said, “and it’s the blacks who are perpetrating those crimes.”1 While black Americans make up about 12 percent of the country’s population, they account for 30 percent of the 2.4 million people currently on probation or parole for crimes they have committed; 41 percent of the 275,000 men and women awaiting trial in local jails or serving short terms there; and 45 percent of the 547,000 inmates of state and federal prisons. Overall, this means that more than a million black Americans are behind bars or could be returned there.
Of course, these figures tell only part of the story, since most crimes are not reported, and most of those that are reported do not result in arrests or convictions. Still, the most precise statistics we have are for arrests, which are collected each year by the FBI from local law enforcement agencies and released in a volume, Crime in the United States. Among the 10.3 million charges logged in 1986 were 10,495 for embezzlement, 222,615 for vandalism, and 688,815 narcotics violations. There were also 123,649 robbery arrests, 30,777 arrests for rape, and 15,953 for murder or manslaughter.
When people speak of the connection between race and crime, the offenses they usually have in mind involve personal encounters: mainly murder, robbery, and rape. To this may be added breaking into homes; even if most burglaries occur in the owners’ absence, they still have a sense of personal violation. As Table A (see next page) shows, black suspects account for 62 percent of all robbery arrests, close to half of those for rapes and deaths, and almost 30 percent of those for burglary.
Given their share of the population, black arrest rates exceed the national figures for every offense except drunken driving. The fivefold disproportion for robbery is especially disquieting, with the result that it has become referred to as the characteristic “black crime.”
It has been argued that arrest figures have a built-in bias, insofar as police are more apt to detain black suspects. One check is an annual study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, called Criminal Victimization in the United States. This survey polls some 60,000 households, asking if any of their members had been a victim of a crime during the preceding year; and, if they were, the race of the criminal. As it happens 63 percent of those who said they were robbed added that their assailant was black, which is virtually the same as Table A’s 62 percent figure for black robbery arrests. So it would seem correct to conclude that fewer whites commit robberies, not that white robbers go unapprehended. On the other hand, 35 percent of those who said…
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