Justice for Blacks?

Race, Crime, and the Law

by Randall Kennedy
Pantheon, 538 pp., $30.00

Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System

by Jerome G. Miller
Cambridge University Press, 304 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Malign Neglect
Race, Crime, and Punishment in America

by Michael Tonry
Oxford University Press, 233 pp., $11.95 (paper)
Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy; drawing by David Levine


African-Americans make up an eighth of the population, but they occupy about half the places in American prisons. This figure, as Michael Tonry, the author of Malign Neglect and a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, writes, “greatly underestimates” the vast disproportion of blacks, particularly young black men, caught up in the criminal justice system.1

In 1990, of every 100,000 whites in the US, 289 were in prison; of every 100,000 blacks, there were 1,860 in prison. Jerome Miller, a social worker and former head of the juvenile justice detention systems in Massachusetts and Illinois and author of Search and Destroy, reports that in Los Angeles in 1991, nearly one third of black men in their twenties had spent some time in jail. In Baltimore in 1992, 56 percent of black men aged eighteen to thirty-five were either imprisoned, on parole, out on bail, or had warrants out for their arrest. Young black men are also disproportionately victims of violence. Elliott Currie, a criminologist who teaches at Berkeley, cites a study by Donald Schwartz of the University of Pennsylvania medical school showing that over a four-year period, 40 percent of young black men from inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia “suffered a violent assault serious enough to send them to a hospital emergency room.”2

While the authors of the three books under review take very different political positions, none questions the fact that, in Randall Kennedy’s words, “relative to their proportion of the population, blacks are more likely than whites to commit street crimes.” Nor do these writers suggest a solution to the problem of black crime. Instead all three are concerned with the poisonous secondary effects that black crime has on race relations, politics, and jurisprudence. Blacks complain that whites treat them as potential criminals. Whites complain that blacks put loyalty to race over loyalty to the criminal justice system. Such incidents as the Tawana Brawley hoax and the cases of Charles Stuart and Susan Smith, who each gave false testimony accusing an imaginary black man of the murders they had themselves committed, periodically inflame one set of grievances while they are going on and another set after they have been exposed. Meanwhile, even while crime rates are falling, local and national governments are committing more and more of their financial resources to prison construction, shrinking the revenue available for other public services.

What has served to intensify the racial disparity in prisons since the early 1980s is the federal “war on drugs,” and particularly the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed after the death from a drug overdose of a college basketball star. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act imposed extremely harsh penalties on users and dealers of crack cocaine. Federal law now requires judges, in sentencing drug offenders, to treat one gram of crack as the equal of one hundred grams of cocaine—a distinction that…

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