Conservative analysts, most notably Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, argue that all racial disparities in arrest and incarceration are due to differences in crime rates and that racism in the criminal justice system is a myth. That too is an oversimplification. Some of the studies MacDonald cites actually find that the demographics of crime are the primary, not the sole, reason for those gaps; there is documented evidence of black and Hispanic defendants being treated more harshly than otherwise similar white offenders. But it’s also difficult to take the liberal narrative seriously when it results in such fallacies as writer Jamelle Bouie’s purported debunking of the “myth of black-on-black crime.” The gist of Bouie’s argument is that most violence involves same-race victims and offenders, regardless of racial group. True; but, unfortunately, it’s no myth that a vastly disproportionate number of intra-racial murders in America—almost 50 percent—are black-on-black.
Commentators as different as black progressive Ta-Nehisi Coates and white conservative Charles W. Cooke have warned that to bring up black-on-black violence in the context of Ferguson amounts to “changing the subject” and “hectoring blacks” instead of confronting the fact that a young black man was gunned down by the police under highly questionable circumstances. But surely there is room to talk about both—as writer John McWhorter demonstrates in his fine recent essayon Brown’s killing in The Daily Beast. Otherwise, one gets a jarring sense of cognitive dissonance when MSNBC contributor Michelle Bernard says that incidents such as Brown’s shooting are par of a “war on black boys” that could turn into “genocide” with no acknowledgment that black boys are in far more danger of being killed by other young black males than by white cops or vigilantes. Few would disagree with Coates that crime in the black community exists in a historical context of white supremacy and racism. That does not make it any less vital to address these problems.
White conservatives can sound distastefully tone-deaf when discussing race, justice, and the demographics of crime (a risk of which I am well aware as I write this). Thus, in a July 2013 article in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, MacDonald acknowledges that law-abiding African-American men are often targets of “humiliating” scrutiny and suspicion. Then, she goes on to say, “Here’s a proposal: For a good five-year stretch, blacks bring their crime rate down to white and Asian levels. Once it becomes widely understood that blacks are no more likely to steal, rob, rape, or shoot than whites or Asians, we’ll see if blacks still elicit the defensive reactions.” However solid MacDonald’s statistics, this comes across as smug and insulting, if only because there’s nothing law-abiding blacks can do to bring down black crime rates.