It’s hard to imagine anything more ordinary in the national media these days than an item making or reporting the claim that the American criminal justice system is plagued with systemic racism. Much harder to imagine: such an article containing evidence powerfully refuting that charge. But that’s exactly what appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section today.
Authors Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University narcotics policy specialist and Ekow N. Yankah, a law professor at New York City’s Yeshiva University tell readers near the beginning of their essay that “the criminal justice system is suffused with racial biases that harm African Americans and Hispanics while favoring Whites.”
They go on to deplore “continuing, pervasive discrimination against African Americans in the criminal justice system and huge disparities in incarceration.” They note that “Blacks…are five times more likely to be imprisoned than Whites.” And they insist that “Race-based critiques of mass incarceration remain essential….”
But weirdly, what the authors themselves recognize as new and important in the national debate about race relations and law enforcement is the official research they report that in jails, which are operated mainly by local governments, “since 2000, the rate of being jailed increased 41 percent among Whites while declining 22 percent among African Americans.”
Further, “Beginning in 2017, the White rate of being jailed surpassed that of Hispanics for the first time in living memory. And in 2018, Whites became 50 percent of the jail population, particularly notable because Whites represent a lower proportion of the U.S. population than they have in centuries.”
As for prisons, which are operated by the states and the federal government, “parallel racial dynamics are evident. The White rate of imprisonment is down only 12 percent in this century, whereas the Hispanic rate has fallen 18 percent and the Black rate is down a remarkable 40 percent. The trend of African Americans leaving prison is accelerating, dropping Black imprisonment rates to levels not seen in 30 years.”
These statistics, remarkable – and neglected – as they are, by no means prove conclusively that racism isn’t too common in American law enforcement, at every level. Indeed, as I wrote last August:
“My own personal conversations with black friends have helped convince me (despite my deep mistrust of the evidentiary value of anecdotes) that there is a tendency on the part of a non-negligible number of police officers across the country to view African American men in particular with special suspicion, and to act on these suspicions. South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott’s alleged experiences in this respect carry weight with me, too.”
There’s also no shortage of statistical evidence pointing to discriminatory policing and sentencing.
But at or close to the heart of the systemic criminal justice racism charges is the insistence that America’s police and prosecutors and courts consistently and on a national level, all else equal, go after and actually lock up more blacks (and other minorities) than whites. And authors Humphreys and Yankah have made clear – unwittingly, it seems – that
>the exact opposite has been happening;
>that it’s been happening for at least two decades; and
>it continued even after the election as President of one Donald J. Trump, who has not only often been called one of America’s most racist chief executives (including by no less than current President Biden), but whose bigotry is widely supposed to have inspired ever more brazen and terrible brutality by racist cops.
In other words, the data that’s arguably most important show that whatever racism has stained American law enforcement is fading away. If true, hopefully reports describing and amplifying that encouraging trend will become commonplace in the national media, too.