White People Commit the Most Heinous Crimes, So Why Is America Terrified of Black Men?
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It. Copyright © 2014 by Lisa Bloom. Reprinted with permission of Counterpoint Press.
Underlying much of that subconscious racial bias is the most enduring, corrosive racial stereotype in America: the black-as-criminal mindset. Historian David Levering summarizes it: “Whites commit crimes but blacks are criminals.” While whites can and do commit a great deal of minor and major crimes, the race as a whole is never tainted by those acts. But when blacks violate the law, all members of the race are considered suspect. used to anchor a show on Court TV, and when we heard about a new arrest for some horrific crime, my African American co-host would whisper, “Please don’t let him be black.” It would never enter my mind to wish that a bad guy not be white, because no matter how sick the crime, other members of the white race are not impugned.
Remember Zimmerman’s false syllogism? A few blacks committed burglary, Trayvon was black, therefore Trayvon was a criminal. Similar logic is used daily in the assumptions police and citizens make about African Americans, especially young males.
The black-man-as-criminal stereotype runs deep. The archetype is so prevalent that the majority of whites and African Americans agreed with the statement “blacks are aggressive or violent” in a national survey. In support of these findings, other research indicates that the public generally associates violent street crime with African Americans. Other nationwide research has shown that the public perceives that blacks are involved in a greater percentage of violent crime than official statistics indicate they actually are.
Notice how the reasoning about race runs right to insulting conclusions (blacks are criminals), but never to positives, which would be equally (il)logical. No one thinks:
- Barack Obama is our president, and he’s African American.
- That kid walking down the street is African American.
- He’s probably a future president!
The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African American. When we think about crime, we “see black,” even when it’s not present at all.
Where did this insulting stereotype come from? The black-as-criminal image has been with us at least since the nineteenth century, when explicit racism portrayed African American slaves’ essential nature as ignorant and savage, in need of the “civilizing” influence of the white man. At that time little black crime actually occurred, as slaves’ lives were rigorously controlled, and they could be and often were swiftly put to death for perceived offenses against the slave owners, who acted as judge, jury, and executioner. As Chief Justice Roger B. Taney said in the famous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision about the Founding Fathers’ mindset in drafting the Constitution:
Blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.
In contrast, white slavers, who should have been the real criminals, imprisoned African Americans on their plantations, forcing them to live short, harsh lives in extreme poverty, working without any compensation, constantly subjecting them to regular beatings and threats of violence. Female slaves were often raped by white male slave owners. Well into the twentieth century lynchings of blacks in the southern United States were not only common but were social events where white families would bring the children and a picnic lunch, and take pictures of the hanging, to be made into commemorative postcards. On average, an African American man, woman, or child was hanged, generally by a white mob, once a week, every week between 1882 and 1930, as police actively participated or stood by and condoned the murders. Lynchings continued until the 1950s, as thousands of black Americans were hanged for offenses like “disputing with a white man.” (A much smaller number of whites were lynched as well, often for taking the side of a black person.)
Though the United States was founded as a slave nation, with the subjugation of African Americans written into our constitution, and though our history brims with centuries of repulsive acts of viciousness perpetrated by whites against millions of African Americans, no white-as-criminal trope ever took hold. This can only be attributed to the triumph of propaganda over reality.
What about more recently? Most of us see our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings as shameful and repellent, yet still believe the black-as-criminal attitude is justified based on current crime fears. Is it?
It depends on what we choose to fear. How about serial killers? What criminal is more terrifying than a madman killing again and again, escaping the law? America’s most notorious serial killers, striking fear as their body counts mount, have almost always turned out to be white, and gruesome beyond imagining. Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, terrorized his city in the 1960s, sexually assaulting and murdering thirteen women. David Berkowitz, New York City’s “son of Sam,” killed six and wounded seven in the late 1970s, terrifying the city until his apprehension.Ted Bundy, who called himself “the most coldhearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” confessed to thirty murders in the 1970s. He was on the loose, killing women in Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado for years before he was apprehended. Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as a clown and performed at children’s hospitals, murdered thirty-three teenaged boys and young men in the 1970s, burying twenty-seven in the crawl space under his house. He described his sexual release in committing murder as “the ultimate thrill.” Gary Ridgeway, Washington State’s Green River Killer, was convicted of killing forty-eight girls and young women but admitted to ninety murders during the 1980s and 1990s. He returned to the corpses he left along the river to have sexual intercourse with them. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, killed three and terrorized many others, sending mail bombs with his anti-technology screeds to universities and airports for seventeen years, until 1995. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, raped, murdered, and dismembered seventeen men and boys over thirteen years, until 1991. Dennis Rader, known as BTK for his signature “bind, torture, and kill” modus operandi, killed ten in Wichita, Kansas and was on the loose for decades until his 2005 apprehension.
Though each of these men was white, striking again and again in towns and cities across the United States, garnering intense media coverage of their crimes and captures, no fear of white men emerged. Their murders were considered individual acts for which they alone were responsible.
Prominent American organized crime families have long been run by white men like John Gotti, widely reputed to be responsible for at least thirty murders, including executions he ordered of members of his own crime family who he suspected of being informants. James “Whitey” Bulger killed at least eleven of his organized crime associates and did not face justice until he was 84 years old. He was sentenced to life in prison in late 2013. The judge sentencing him pronounced “the scope, callousness, and depravity of [his] crimes are almost unfathomable.” Yet none of us looks at white men with concern that they are mob bosses.
Rampage killers are often in the news. Nearly every one who has murdered a large number of people in one horrific event has been white. American bomber Timothy McVeigh took 168 lives at the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, many of them preschoolers at day care, in the worst incident of domestic terrorism until 9/11. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine high school killers, shot thirteen of their fellow high school students, then took their own lives in 1999. Adam Lanza killed his mother, then a classroom full of six- and seven-year-olds and six school personnel before killing himself at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Earlier that year James Holmes shot 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. All these men are white, as is the case for virtually all shooters on the long and growing list of mass killings in America. (The major exception is not an African-American but Korean student Seung-Hui Cho, who committed the worst mass shooting in our history, killing thirty-three people at Virginia Tech University before turning his gun on himself in 2007.) Yet even though these shocking events generate round-the-clock media attention for days or weeks afterwards, that level of attention does not scare anyone away from white men.
Shocking cases of white women killing their own children occur regularly. In 1995, Susan Smith murdered her two sons, then told police an African American man did it. (So prevalent is the black-as-criminal stereotype that racial hoaxes are common and often effective in distracting attention.) Andrea Yates drowned all five of her young children in 2001. In one of the highest profile cases of the last few years, Casey Anthony was tried (and acquitted) for the murder of her daughter Caylee. No one concludes white women are baby killers.
Every American presidential assassin – the killers of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy -- has been white, as was the killer of JFK’s assassin, and the murderers of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin was white, and so were all those who made attempts on the lives of presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald Ford (Ford’s two attempted killers diverged not on racial but on gender lines, as both were white women).
In our nation’s history, so many of the sickest, most appalling crimes have been committed by whites. Yet no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how young the victims, no matter how much fear is engendered in a community, no matter how much media attention and public discussion the crimes of whites engender, the race itself is never sullied. One does not look at a white man or woman and feel concern that pale skin enhances the likelihood that he or she is an assassin, a bomber, a murderer.
It is the black-as-criminal stereotype that endures, sometimes buried, sometimes expressed in private to trusted confidants, and other times stated openly by those who do not fear being called racist. President Obama, in his remarks the week after the Zimmerman verdict, noted that African American men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, finding common ground with those who fear black criminals. During the Zimmerman case, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many when he openly wrote of his fear of African American men. Conservative author Ann Coulter said that fear of black males is justified because they commit so much crime. Even civil rights leader Jesse Jackson admits, “There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Most everyone in the debate about the black-as-criminal stereotype, then, accepts as fact that African American males commit a grossly disproportionate amount of crime. On the right, this is generally used as evidence justifying anxiety about African Americans on the streets, in stores, or near white homes. On the left, root causes of crime are examined (failing schools, poverty, joblessness) in an effort to explain and reduce the numbers. But few scrutinize the numbers themselves to see who really is committing serious crimes in America, to determine based on reason and logic whether suspicions of African Americans actually make sense.
Let’s look at run-of-the-mill crimes today. Who’s committing them? Who should be feared? Again, it depends on what categories of offenses we choose to fear. Whites are disproportionately arrested for some crimes, such as arson, driving under the influence, and vandalism. That is, even with the focus of police resources on black communities, whites are convicted of these offenses at numbers greater than their percentage of the population. Drunk driving is a real menace, killing over 10,000 Americans per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Yet no one eyes a white driver next to him on the road and says, “A-ha, light-skinned guy, he’s probably drunk, I’m calling the police.” The statistics don’t matter. Our perceptions do.
How much crime overall is committed by African Americans? You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to strip away anxieties and emotions and arrive at the factual answer to this question. Most go quickly to FBI arrest or incarceration statistics, to see who has been convicted and sentenced for various offenses, broken down by race. But this data doesn’t include every state or even consistent reporting from one police department to the next. Nevertheless, this FBI data shows that African Americans, who comprise 13 percent of our population, represent 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons. That is, blacks are locked up at nearly three times their rate in population, a shockingly high number. This statistic is often used in support of the black-as-criminal conclusion.
But these numbers are almost entirely useless, because they are both over- and under-inclusive. They include a small number of people who may be innocent as well as a very large number of inmates incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, especially marijuana possession, which does not strike fear in the hearts of most people. Worse, these numbers are flawed because they do not reflect who’s committing the crime, merely who has been apprehended and locked up. They leave out all the burglars and rapists and killers who are still on the loose.
And the statistics don’t take into account unequal policing. Many people are unaware of the huge disparity of law enforcement resources applied to majority black urban neighborhoods in comparison to the relatively lax policing of white suburbs. Police departments send legions of officers to patrol inner city neighborhoods, with high concentrations of blacks, stopping, questioning, and frisking African Americans (and Hispanics), and where law enforcement has more eyes on a community, it finds more offenses. Once in the “sticky” criminal justice system, young men of color are likely to find themselves under correctional control, monitored, watched for many years, even after release from incarceration. To make room for the skyrocketing number of Americans (disproportionately men of color) incarcerated in the last few decades, we’ve slashed and generally eliminated prison counseling, drug treatment programs, education and vocational programs. Once released, ex-cons are legally discriminated against by employers, denied food stamps, access to public housing, school loans, professional licenses, and access to many other basic services. As a result, the United States has a high recidivism rate, as drug dealing and other criminal enterprises are the rare occupations that offer jobs to released former inmates. In inner city neighborhoods, it’s easy to fall under correctional control, and once in, it’s tough to get out.
The chief problem with arrest and incarceration statistics, compiled so diligently by law enforcement annually and relied upon heavily by most legal analysts, is that they are only as good as the humans making decisions as to where to focus police, what crimes to charge, what plea bargains to offer, what sentences to impose. As we’ve seen, nearly everyone harbors implicit racial fears and assumptions, and the humans staffing our criminal justice system are no better nor worse than the rest of us. We know that at every turn, similarly situated African Americans are treated more punitively than whites in the criminal justice system.
Thus the decisions made at the entry point to the criminal justice system – community policing decisions as to who gets watched, who gets stopped, who gets questioned, who gets patted down for contraband – powerfully determine not who is a criminal, but who gets labelled as criminal. All things being equal, inmate numbers would easily tell us who has broken the law. But again, almost nothing is equal in our justice system.
For example, arrests. We know that overall blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate (whites are more likely to sell). Among young people aged eighteen to twenty-five, the most common age to be caught up in the criminal justice system, whites are more likely to have smoked marijuana. This is contrary to the widely held association of drug use with African Americans. When we include other narcotics, whites constitute the vast majority of drug users. Yet in one survey, when subjects were asked, “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user.
Nationwide, four times as many African Americans as whites are arrested for marijuana possession. In Iowa and the District of Columbia, the number jumps to eight times as many. How does this happen? Because police departments, partly driven by a desire to increase their drug arrest statistics, concentrate on minority or poorer neighborhoods. Focusing on low-level offenses is easier and cheaper than investigating serious crimes, and drives those arrest numbers high, triggering increased funding. And so hundreds of thousands of inner city residents are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for having a joint, a cookie, or a baggie of marijuana in their pocket, even though the majority of Americans favor legalization.
When was the last time you saw a drug sweep in the suburbs?
If one reasoned only from arrest records, one would conclude that blacks are four times as likely as whites to smoke marijuana. And we know that would be wrong. Reasoning backward from arrest or imprisonment statistics to conclude that minority groups are violent criminals is equally flawed.
We know that police disproportionately target neighborhoods of color, so that’s where the vast majority of arrests occur. That does not necessarily mean that’s where most of the criminals are. To drill down on this, let’s take a look at a timely case study of focused policing, where due to a federal judge’s intervention, massive data was compiled by police themselves as they patrolled, stopped, questioned, and frisked millions of citizens over many years in America’s largest city.