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Conservatives' Twisted, Racist Logic in the Trayvon Martin Case

Just because more African Americans are incarcerated, it does not mean a given individual is more likely to commit a crime.

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That black people commit more crime is a fallacy of both process and outcomes. African Americans are subject to discrimination in the legal system at every level. As documented by the Sentencing Project, and detailed in such works as Race, Crime and the Law, and The New Jim Crow, African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police without cause, more likely to be aggressively questioned, receive longer and more severe charges for the same crimes as white defendants, and have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.

As compared to white neighborhoods, black and brown communities are also subject to more severe surveillance and aggressive police tactics. Moreover, the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system can be largely explained by the War on Drugs. In total, if white communities were subject to the same type of aggressive police tactics as black and brown communities, the number of white people in prison would skyrocket.

The data is very telling here. While people of color are the prime targets of such policies as “stop and frisk” and  racial profiling, it is in fact white people who are far more likely to be both drug users and to be in possession of narcotics at a given moment. This reality signals to a larger social phenomenon: black individuals who commit crimes are representative of their whole communities, crime is racialized, and there is no qualifier of individual intent. All black people are deemed suspicious and guilty because of the deeds of the very few.

In contrast, white people who commit crimes are unique individuals: the criminals who destroyed the global economy, a group of white men, were not taken as representative of the entire white community. There is a long list of crimes such as domestic terrorism, serial murder, child rape, sedition, treason, and financial fraud that are almost exclusively the province of white people. But again, whites as a group are excluded from suspicion or indictment as a “criminal class.”

The supposition that black men (and black folks more generally) are by definition “suspicious” is a channeling of the once in vogue concept known as “rational” or “reasonable” racism. Applying this logic, George Zimmerman is justified in shooting first, profiling, or harassing black people because “statistically” the latter are more likely to commit crime. Again, this is a chain of reasoning that is rife with problems.

Generalized statistics about crime tell you very little about a given person’s likelihood of committing a criminal act. This is especially true in a society where race and class are variables that over-determine how the courts treat suspects and who the police choose to single out for surveillance, harassment and arrest.

Broad statistics also tell us little about a given population’s capacity or propensity to commit crime. For example, while black men are disproportionately incarcerated, the majority are in jail for drug offenses. African Americans are also more likely to be poor than whites. When a researcher accounts for these variables, the story becomes one of class and not race. Further problematizing the true lie that “black equals criminal,” is that disparities in crime largely disappear when you consider the black middle- and upper-classes in comparison to their white peers.

As demonstrated by Jody Armour in her book Negrophobia, less than 2 percent of black men are incarcerated for violent crimes. By implication, to generalize from the demographics of a given prison population to a specific person’s likelihood of committing a violent crime is a fool’s errand of the first order.