This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders got himself in trouble – what else is new? – for asserting last week that blacks wind up in state prison at higher rates because they commit crimes at higher rates.
Predictably, he got slammed from all directions. He’s clearly guilty of insensitivity: That was an absurdly simplistic summary of an extremely complex problem. Still, his comments ought to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.
The state’s black population is roughly 4 percent. Its prison population is roughly 20 percent. That disparity should appall anyone. But Sanders was right in one respect: Attributing the gap exclusively to racism won’t help solve the specific problems that perpetuate it.
Racism created many of the difficulties some minorities continue to struggle with. African Americans – who, with American Indians, suffered the worst of it – endured more than two centuries of slavery and another century of legal subjugation.
No group could survive a crucible like that without scars and disadvantages. Though most American blacks have since clawed their way into the middle class, far too many remain in poverty.
But if racism provides the overall context, more specific circumstances explain much of the disparity in arrests, convictions and imprisonment.
Crimes of violence and theft tend to be higher among the poor. That pattern prevailed among other ethnic groups – like the early Irish immigrants – and it prevails among many today. Control for poverty – by comparing middle class to middle class, for example – and the fivefold imprisonment disparity would shrink.
Poverty must be broken out of the equation and addressed in its own terms. One byproduct of poverty, for example, is inadequate legal representation in the justice system. That’s not a racial problem per se – it’s a matter of investing more in criminal defense.
A broader remedy would be attracting employers and payrolls to economically distressed neighborhoods. Racism can be a factor here, but it’s not coming from police or prosecutors; some companies are reluctant to locate in areas heavily populated by minorities. That’s another problem that must be broken out and fixed.
Other factors include poor schools, absentee fathers and a catastrophic dropout rate among African Americans – and Latinos, for that matter.
Those all contribute to higher crime rates. Neither blacks nor any other race are inherently more prone to crime; any group in the same circumstances would show similar signs of distress. But fixes to the criminal justice system, necessary as they may be, can only chip away at the margins of the problem.
Pretending that there isn’t a higher crime rate – pretending, say, that comfortable whites are as prone to theft as desperately poor blacks – doesn’t help at all.