Again, The Myth of the Racist Criminal Justice System

My dissertation, Caste, Class, and Justice: Segregation, Accumulation, and Criminalization in the United States, was a two-volume 800-plus-page, that I intended to turn into a book after securing tenure. In that work, I was very critical of the criminal justice system. However, since then, a wealth of research has accumulated that shows that many of the things that criminologists believed in the 1990s about this system, especially with respect to race (beliefs that have become commonplace today), are false or undetermined. As this evidence began to accumulate, It became necessary to put that book project on hold. It has been over two decades now. An entirely new picture of the facts has emerged, so the subject matter must be reassessed. I review those facts on Freedom and Reason in numerous entries (I include a few of them in this entry).

It often the case that popular understandings always lag behind science, which is especially unfortunate in today’s climate, since false and misleading claims are influencing tens of millions of well-meaning people to believe and act in ways that are divisive and destructive. Black Lives Matter is the paradigm. As a criminologist, as an intellectual matter, it is distressing for me to see the amount of misinformation there is out there about this topic and the resistance to facts I routinely encounter. The purpose of this particular entry is to review those facts while avoiding the thickets of detailed empirical analysis. Again, there is plenty of detailed analysis on Freedom and Reason. I will deal with two areas here: (1) prison demographics and (2) lethal civilian-officer encounters.

Prison Demographics and Demographics of Criminality

In presenting facts about the demographic profile of US prisons, one might get the impression that the criminal justice system is racist in who it convicts and sends to prison. The outstanding fact is that black males, who comprise around six percent of the general population, make up between 36-38 percent of the prison population.

It is a shocking statistic that critical racist theorists take this as prima facia evidence of systemic racism. But that obscures the causal force behind the statistic. More than 50 percent of all homicides and robberies, and a third of aggravated assaults, are perpetrated by black males. Taking all violence crimes together, roughly 36-38 percent of them are committed by black males. Consider that more than half of all those in prison are there for violent offenses. What is more is that around a third of burglaries are committed by black males. Roughly half of nonviolent prisoners were convicted of serious property crimes, of which burglary is the most serious. (Only around 15 percent of prisoners are drug offenders.) Therefore, when one accounts for demographic overrepresentation in serious criminality, the demographic overrepresentation of black men in prison is explained. (See Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Caste: An Analytical Model for Theorizing Crime and Punishment in US History.) 

I want to emphasize to readers that overrepresentation of black men in serious crimes does not mean that most black men engage in criminal activity. Most black men, in fact, do not engage in serious crime. The same is true for poverty and many other statistics where blacks are overrepresented. Most blacks are not poor. Most blacks are not jobless. Overrepresentation means that, in relation to demographic groupings, there is a higher rate of crime, poverty, and joblessness. It is important to always remember this when consuming statistical claims. Moreover, even though a majority of murders and a majority of robberies are perpetrated by black men, only a minority of black men are murderers and robbers.

Lethal Civilian-Officer Encounters and Unarmed Black Men

To take another example, when controlling for demographic overrepresentation in serious criminality, as well as contextual factors, the only studies that find racial disparities in lethal civilian-officer encounters, of which there are approximately one thousand annually, find white police officers are more reluctant to use deadly force when the suspect is black compared to when the suspect is white. In other words, the scientific literature on these encounters, which is extensive and deep, does not support the claim of systemic racism in police shootings. The media does not tell its audience that twice as many white men are killed by the police every year than black men. Or that the overrepresentation of blacks in police shootings is explained by crime and context. (See Manufacturing the Illusion of White Supremacy. See also The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters. Here’s the FAR Podcast version with notes.)

The perception that large numbers of unarmed black men die at the hands of the police every year is also false. The misperception is not merely substantial, but astonishing. A recent study found that a plurality of those who watch mainstream media believe the police shoot around a thousand unarmed black men—and a quarter of those polled believe that around 10,000 or more unarmed blacks are killed by the police annually. The number is actually around a dozen unarmed black men shot by the police in 2019, as typical year. It is worth noting that just because somebody is unarmed does not mean they do not present a danger to civilians or officers. Hands, feet, and automobiles are also deadly weapons. (See More on the Remarkable Ignorance of Progressive Democrats.)

To give you a sense of how far off the facts are those who describe themselves as very liberal or progressive, around 5,000 blacks, mostly men, were killed during the entire period of lynching in the United States—half as many as very liberal or progressive respondents suppose police kill every year in the United States. The misperception works out to about 27 unarmed black men killed every day in America. Is it any wonder why so many people are frightened of the police?

I argue that the reason why it is so easy to believe that the police are more likely to kill black people is because there is faith in the proposition that the United States is systemically racist. This faith belief sets up an expectation that makes the receiver of information more likely to uncritically accept that information and its biased frame.

Let’s suppose I tell you that well over 95 percent of those killed by the cops are men. Since you do not believe that there is systemic sexism against men in US society, you do not accept this statistic as evidence that police are targeting men. You believe instead (correctly, it turns out) that men are overrepresented in the types of serious criminal offending that increase the likelihood that they will encounter police officers in deadly interactions. (See: The Police are Sexist, too.)

Ideology and Propaganda

One of the frustrations I experience as a criminologist who studies and lectures on the criminal justice system is the way the establishment media, whose journalists surely know better, are more interested in promoting propaganda of a particular political persuasion (corporatist and progressive) that ramps up division and discontent in our society instead of reporting the good news that the US criminal justice system, as the rest of America’s institutions, have never been less racist. To be sure, they seem bent on changing that. The corporate media system is a public relations apparatus serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

Is it possible that the power elite ask us to focus on race in order to distract us from the problem of social class? Just imagine how much a threat the working masses would represent to the ruling corporate class if they came together across the objective lines of class rather than dwelling in imaginary communities of racial division. Is there not an interest in the rich and powerful preventing that from happening? Have they not used racial division all these centuries to this effect? A lot of the activism out there in the streets sounds radical. But how radical can it really be when corporations back it, the mainstream media push it, and the government schools teach it?

Epistemic Commitments and Fallacious Reasoning

For the record, scientifically-speaking, I am Marxian in orientation. I tell my audiences about my epistemic commitments because my comments often strike them as conservative and rightwing. I assure you, I am neither conservative nor rightwing. I am pretty certain that I am to the left of most of the population. I tell readers this, because I want them to know that there are not only two sides to an argument. There are many sides. The operative question going forward is this: which argument has the facts on its side? Always stay true to the facts and the scientific requirement to adjudicate them independent of any given political ideology.

Critical race theory sets up people to ignore and misinterpret facts and to draw wrong conclusions because of the illogic of social justice. With respect to questions of individual versus social justice, we differentiate individual or liberal style justice, with its norms and values of civil rights, equality before the law, presumption of innocence, and rational adjudication of fact, from the style supposed by critical race theory, which emphasizes group rights organized around race, equity in outcome (members of different groups should be held to different standards), presumption of guilt (members of one group are by definition “perpetrators,” while another are by definition “victims”), and treating disparities in outcomes as prima facia evidence of injustice (dispensing with cause and effect). As one can see, the latter commits numerous fallacies—ecological, reification, and self-confirming.

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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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