State Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and Jim Johnson sailed into a squall a couple weeks ago when they disputed claims that racism explains the disproportionate rate of black imprisonment. The remarks prompted the Seattle Times to withdraw its endorsement of Sanders’ re-election almost as fast as NPR fired Juan Williams.
We wound up editorializing that a single-minded focus on racism can obscure more concrete problems, such as poverty and lack of legal representation, that might have concrete solutions. Centuries of institutional racism – especially slavery and Jim Crow – may have created the problem, but remedies must be found in the here-and-now.
The most ferocious challenge to the racism-only paradigm I’ve run into comes from Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute, who published a statistically dense rebuttal in the Spring 2008 issue of City Journal. Some of her points:
• Criminals strongly tend to be fingered by victims of the same race.
• Multiple studies by liberal scholars have found that conviction rates are driven by actual crimes, not bias.
• The disparity in federal penalties for crack and cocaine possession, sometimes cited as a factor in disparate racial imprisonment rates, has an almost negligible effect. In any event, black leaders originally called for the crackdown on crack: “It takes shameless sleight of hand to turn an effort to protect blacks into a conspiracy against them.”
• Drug enforcement in general accounts for only half a percentage point of the rate of black imprisonment.
• It takes some doing to get into prison in the first place: “In the overwhelming majority of cases, whatever the race of the convicted, prison remains what it has always been: a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending. Absent recidivism or a violent crime, the criminal-justice system will do everything it can to keep you out of the state or federal slammer.”
I’m not vouching for her conclusions, some of which lend aid and comfort to a brand of politics I don’t like, but I’ve yet to find a persuasive response to her analysis.