The Myth of Racist Criminal Justice Persists—at the Denial of Human Agency (and Logic)

I recently shared a meme on Facebook. I remarked that it is a powerful meme. It sums up a lot of what I have been arguing of late on Freedom and Reason. If the point of the meme were taken up and to heart—and it is for most people the operating principle—then there would be a lot less crime in America, especially in those neighborhoods most ravaged by criminal violence, and there would be fewer black men standing in the dock and in prison.

Of course, the meme drew criticisms. The argument that the present situation of an individual is to some significant extent the result of choices made in the past smacks progressives of victim blaming. That charge only works for those groups progressives have determined should not be held to account for the harm they cause. Progressives infantilize blacks, seeing them as incapable of making the choices that explain their plight, but rather as puppets on strings, victims of sociological forces. Those belonging to groups progressives despise (which includes groups to which they themselves belong) are not entitled to blame their behavior on those same abstract forces. Members of those groups are not only responsible for their behavior, but are responsible for the behavior of members of the same imagined communities. So when we hear about how poverty drives blacks to commit crime, poor whites are not excused from their wrongdoings. (The Wages of Victimism: Leftwing Trauma Production for Political Ends.)

One criticism of the meme concerned social class, poverty, and demography, in particular the claims that poverty causes crime and that blacks earn less money than whites despite being in the same occupational classes. Taking up the second claim first, certainly at the moment for cop and lawyer, they exist, at least, in different occupational classes. Does that black cop make less than a white cop in his department at his rank? Not likely. But we don’t know the class location of the defendant. You cannot by looking at a person for whom the social role is unknown know for sure to what class he belongs. At the same time, we do know for certain that humans have agency. A human being makes a decision to break the law (“Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” Progressives need Victims). I have little doubt the defendant is standing in the dock for breaking the law. Despite the occasional mistake, the system doesn’t arbitrarily take civilians into custody. It is unlikely that anybody forced that young man to do whatever it was that brought him in front of a judge (if he was forced, then he has a defense based on an excuse). As I have argued, demographic claims about individuals commit the ecological fallacy.

As for the claim that blacks are poorer than whites and poverty is the main reason for involvement in criminal activities. But if this were true, given that there are twice as many poor whites than poor blacks, one would not expect to see blacks so starkly overrepresented in serious criminal offending, but rather whites representing the greater proportion of serious criminal offenses. But we don’t see that. Blacks are 13 percent of the population, yet they account for more than half of all murders and robberies and a third of aggravated assaults (between 36-38 percent of violent crime overall) and a third of burglaries. This is not because blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites compared to relative involvement in criminal activities. These facts hold across statistical measures. They explain black overrepresentation in prisons and jails. (The FAR Podcast: Explaining the Overrepresentation of Blacks in Crime.)

Crime and neighborhood conditions (Progressives, Poverty, and Police: The Left Blames the Wrong Actors) and delinquent traditions represent the greater statistical associations not poverty. Those who perpetuate criminal acts are more likely to experience socialization in subcultures that promote crime and violence and teach techniques that neutralize the conscience conducive to adherence to the law, techniques that teach young men that crime is a form of rebellion against injustice (Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect; Marxist Theories of Criminal Justice and Criminogenesis; Why are there so Many More White than Black Victims of Interracial Homicide?).

But humans aren’t puppets on strings. They have agency. These associations only increase the statistical likelihood of crime. The truth remains that most people who live in crime-ridden conditions and around the traditions that promote them do not engage in serious crime. Moreover, blacks are statistically more likely the victims of these types of crime. So however much one might say that the conditions prepare the crime, persons must decide to perpetrate the crime. This makes those persons responsible, which is how society may bring them to account. And should. (“If They Cared.” Confronting the Denial of Crime and Violence in American Cities.)

The young man in the dock in the meme is not there because he is black. There are many young black men who never stand before a judge. That young man is there because he made a choice. He is not a victim. Indeed, why he is standing there suggests somebody else is.

Another criticism took the form of examples of blacks being pulled over by the cops or having their residences searched despite their class location. (See Policy Presuming “White Privilege” Violates Equal Protection Under the Law). One example was the recent shooting of a man who told his mother over the phone that the police pulled him over for an air freshener. But we know the man wasn’t pulled over for an air freshener. He was pulled over for a traffic violation. The police ran his name and there was a warrant for his arrest. He resisted, endangering the lives of police officers, and in the confusion a police officer mistakenly drew her weapon (she believed it was her taser) and shot and killed the man. He’d still be alive if he hadn’t resisted. (An Avoidable Tragedy: The Accidental Shooting of Duante Wright. See also Dealing with the Police.)

I noted that white people are pulled over by the police all the time. I was myself hassled by the police frequently because of my long hair. It was a tax I paid because long haired young men in the 1970s and 1980s were more likely to deal and use drugs and, rightly or wrong, cops work from typifications (mainly because it functions to reduce crime). Cops perform disproportionate number of investigative stops on blacks for the same reason. However we feel about the practice, the facts show that drivers who cooperate with police face no greater danger from cops on account of race.

The practical function of saying that patterns of arrest and imprisonment are because of racism (they’re not) or that crime is caused by the abstract structures and forces supposed by sociological theorists (maybe part of the explanation but no excuse for lawbreaking) is to simultaneously recast perpetrators as victims while portraying human beings as marionettes, robbing them of agency and denying their responsibility. When progressives do this on the basis of critical race theory, they infantilize blacks while, at same time, not only hold whites accountable for their actions, but also for the actions of other whites, and, even more than this, blame the actions of blacks on whites, who are depicted as privileged and powerful. which, for the vast majority of whites, is untrue (just as it is untrue to say that all blacks are disadvantaged and powerless. I have watched this bizarre manner of thinking develop over several decades, shamefully at times participating in its development. I now sit here deeply concerned that there may be no walking it back.

* * *

If you put on your sociology glasses you can see the abstract theoretical structures and forces pulling at the strings that manipulate them into hurting other people.

When prominent and influential figures teach children, through word and deed, that they and the people around them are not responsible for their situation, that they have no obligation to regard those around them with normal human regard, and that violence is a means to an end in settling matters beyond absolutely necessity, then the result will be a failure of impulse control and violent behavior towards others.

The same is true with civilian-officer interactions. Tell people that the police are racists and are only stopping them because of their race, and that, therefore they are right to resist (after all who shouldn’t resist racist aggression?), and you increase the likelihood of injury and death to both civilian, officer, and bystander. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who defend and rationalize irresponsibility are as responsible for these outcomes as those who encourage them.What we teach our children is central to their ability to regulate their emotions, make wise decisions, and do the right thing.

Family has been the heart of the social order since time immemorial. There’s a reason why family lies at the center of explanations for human behavior. I make that observation for what it’s worth (which is a lot) but also to note the current efforts to disrupt normal family systems. Because there is a reason why we are shamed for suggesting that personal responsibility, family structure, and parenting is a solution to a lot of our problems.

Humans are animals. Under normal conditions, animals regard one another peacefully. Most of the time, animals are cooperative—even across species. To be sure, animals will fight over resources. But, still, conduct is for the most part selected to promote common existence and harmony.

The thing that separates humans from other animals is the development of a conscious moral system. Humans, when properly socialized, have a conscience. They anticipate feelings of regret. This controls impulses. Other animals, when enraged, fly off the handle.

At the same time, most aggression displays do not wind up in serious injury or death of the other member of their species. It is particularly important to teach the human animal to control its impulses and to regard other humans decently. The development of a strong conscience is central to this.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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