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.”
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