Rebirth of Reason


Crime and Poverty, Part II
by William Scott Dwyer

If crime promotes poverty, what causes crime? Certainly not poverty. A brief look at history can attest to that.

In 1903, when people were much poorer than they are today, the homicide rate was about 1 per hundred thousand people. In 1990, when people were far better off economically, it was over 10 per hundred thousand. From 1933 to 1941, a period of high unemployment and low economic growth, crime rates declined, whereas during the 1960's and early '70's, a period of rising prosperity, crime rates rose. In 1961, with 22% of Americans below the current poverty line (as measured in constant dollars), the homicide rate was 4.7 per hundred thousand. By 1974, when the number of Americans below the poverty line had fallen to 12%, the homicide rate had more than doubled, to 10.2 per hundred thousand. Similarly, between 1960 and 1978, as poverty declined, reported robberies more than tripled, auto thefts more than doubled, and burglaries nearly tripled.

Nor does it follow that the poorer an ethnic group, the higher its crime rate. During the 1960's, San Francisco's Chinatown had the lowest income, the highest unemployment rate, the least education, the highest rates of tuberculosis and the most substandard housing of any area of the city. Yet in 1965, there were only five Chinese in prison in the entire state of California. Black scholar Ira Reid notes that during the 1930's, black West Indian immigrants lived in the same inner-city poverty as American blacks, yet were underrepresented among prison inmates while American blacks were three to seven times overrepresented.

Furthermore, the crime rate of blacks relative to whites was increasing even as black poverty -- both absolutely and relative to whites -- was declining. In 1932, blacks were four times more likely than whites to be in prison, by 1979, blacks were eight times more likely. Similarly, during the heavily racist 19th century, the black homicide rate in Philadelphia was 3 times higher than for whites, but had risen to 12 times higher by the middle of the 20th century, and by 1970 was 20 times higher. Yet is obvious that blacks were neither poorer nor less equal to whites in 1970 than they were in the 19th century.

If poverty is not a viable explanation for the escalating crime rate among African Americans, an increase in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households most definitely is. Between 1961 and 1971, the number of single, black teenage mothers on welfare in Washington D.C. increased 800 percent, along with a corresponding increase in out-of-wedlock births.

In 1950, only 9 percent of black families were headed by one parent. By 1965, the number was 28 percent, and by 1970 it was 33 percent. By 1989 fully half of all black families with children are headed by a single parent. In 1959, only 15 percent of black births were out of wedlock. By 1990, the figure was over 65 percent. The rate of out-of-wedlock births for whites also increased from 2% in 1960 to over 20 percent in 1990.

It is well documented that children with less than two parents are more likely than other children to become involved in crime. Seventy percent of children in state reform institutions have less than two parents, and the best single predictor of violent crime among boys is the absence of a father.

A tolerance for crime is also fed by the philosophy of welfare entitlements. If the idle poor are entitled to the expropriated earnings of working taxpayers, then what is wrong with stealing from those who are better off? Why shouldn't the poor grab what is "rightfully theirs" when they have the opportunity? If the government is justified in robbing Peter to pay Paul, then why isn't Paul justified in robbing Peter to pay Paul? Given the premise of welfare entitlements, there is no reason he is not.

In addition, there is the belief, now prevalent among blacks and civil rights leaders, that black crime, far from being a detriment to the black community, is an "understandable", even justifiable response to racist oppression. Recall Maxine Waters' characterization of the Rodney King riot as a "justified rebellion", and Cornel West's evaluation of it as "justified social rage", even though the riot harmed thousands of innocent people, and destroyed the economic base of South Central Los Angeles.

Martin Luther King envisioned a day when blacks would be judged by the content of their character instead of by the color of their skin. But his vision is no longer popular among blacks, many of whom would prefer to be judged by the color of their skin instead of by the content of their character. The only difference between them and the white racist is that instead of using skin color as a stigma, they use it as an alibi. They want to be absolved of any responsibility for their character.

Unfortunately, the willingness to excuse black criminals as victims can only encourage black crime, thereby making victims out of other, innocent blacks. A tragically ironic example is that of legendary black activist Rosa Parks who, at the age of 81, was beaten and robbed in her own home by a black neighbor -- an act that violated her civil rights just as surely as did the Jim Crow laws over 50 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. Relative to their percentage of the population, poor blacks are now three times as likely as poor whites to be victims of robbery.

Although many blacks willingly acknowledge the high incidence of black-on-black crime, they still tend to blame it ultimately, if not exclusively, on white racism. Consider the views of Shawn Barney, Student President of Howard University:

"[W]hile [racism] is not the reason for a number of the problems in our own community, to some extent [whites] have created those problems . . . and I'll give you an analogy: If you pour pollutants into a lake . . . over time, you can stop pouring the pollutants into the lake, but that doesn't mean that the systematic decay that has gone on for years and years goes away. You wonder why we prey on each other as African Americans -- that's because as those fish in that lake, we cannot breed on the natural environs in that lake; we have to now turn to other sources, and we have now started to breed upon ourselves and survive off ourselves."

So we are now supposed to believe that black predators need to victimize other blacks. This is not just a lame excuse; it sanctions and encourages the most vicious kind of criminal misconduct. In fact, if white racism and black poverty were the ultimate cause of black-on-black crime, then why was such crime so much less prevalent when white racism and black poverty were so much worse? As we have seen, the black crime rate was far lower in the 1930's than it was in the 1990's. The pollutant causing the upsurge in black crime is not white racism but a growing refusal by blacks to take responsibility for their own lives. Barney's white scapegoating is a racist version of "the devil made me do it" alibi. In his case, it is "the white devil made me do it".

There is also an unfortunate tendency for black jurors to acquit black defendants simply out of racial solidarity. This tendency sends a message to black defendants that they can literally get away with murder -- even the murder of their own people. A case in point was a trial in Washington D.C. in 1990. After the trial, in which the defendant was acquitted of first-degree murder, one of the jurors wrote an anonymous letter explaining that most of the jurors were browbeaten by a black activist foreman into voting not guilty. The foreman, a black Muslim, had reportedly blamed the problems of blacks on white society, and persuaded the jurors not to put another black behind bars, even though in this case, all the witnesses, as well as the victim, were black. The defendant has since been indicted on another charge of first-degree murder, in which the victim is also black. How by freeing these criminals to kill other blacks does one further the cause of civil rights?

Or consider the case of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic Jew who lost control of his car and killed a black child in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York. After the accident, Rosenbaum was hunted down by a black gang who shouted "Get the Jew!" and then stabbed him to death. A member of the gang, Lemrick Nelson, was found near the scene of the crime with a knife containing Rosenbaum's blood, as verified by DNA analysis. Nelson was also identified by a dying Rosenbaum as the attacker, and initially confessed to the crime. Yet, a jury of nine blacks and three Puerto Ricans acquitted him.

This is not to say that black jurors never convict black defendants. In 1982, an Atlanta jury of eight blacks and four whites convicted Wayne Williams, a young black man, in connection with the "missing and murdered children" cases. And in 1990, an Atlanta jury of eight blacks and four whites sent a black man, Emmanuel Hammond, to death row for murdering a white woman, Julie Love. The point here is not that all blacks are racist, but that there exists a disturbing tendency by many blacks to side with black defendants simply out of racial solidarity.

During the O.J. Simpson trial, Ron Shipp reported in an interview with Brian Gumbal that he was repeatedly criticized by friends and acquaintances for testifying against Simpson. They told him that "whether Simpson was innocent or guilty", Shipp, as "an African American", "should have stood by him". Indeed, the acquittal of Simpson by a largely black jury was widely attributed to considerations other than simply his guilt or innocence, and was hailed by an overwhelming majority of blacks, even as it was questioned by most whites, Asians and Hispanics. One black Los Angeles musician was quoted as saying, "I think he did it, but I don't think he's guilty. There is an unpaid debt in black history, and we (pulled) for O.J. because of past injustices to blacks. That's what this is about." Benny Davis, a black Los Angeles store owner, remarked: "Yeah, he did it. About time a brother got away with something around here." And Andy Rooney of Sixty Minutes said that he received letters from eight black viewers who expressed their belief that Simpson was guilty but who hailed the verdict anyway.

It was reported that in the Simpson trial, black jurors took no notes during the Prosecution's examinations, but studiously recorded points made by the Defense. One of the black jurors even turned her back on Marsha Clark during the prosecutor's closing arguments. At the end of the trial, several jurors reportedly packed their bags before beginning to deliberate, and arrived at a verdict within three hours after a trial that spanned over nine months of testimony. One of the jurors, Lionel Cryer, a former member of the Black Panther Party, even gave Simpson a clenched fist, black power salute after the verdict was read.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a black, non-voting representative to Congress from the District of Columbia, drew an interesting parallel on the desire of blacks to see Simpson acquitted because he is black: She said: "White juries in the South had precisely that kind of empathy for whites who were accused of lynching." If there is indeed a racist threat to criminal justice in this country, it is as likely to come from blacks who refuse to convict black defendants as from white police who arrest blacks on racist grounds.

In fact, the refusal of black jurors to convict black defendants is now being given explicit moral sanction under the rubric of jury nullification by a black professor at George Washington University Law School: Professor Paul Butler argued on Sixty Minutes that black jurors should refuse to convict black defendants even if the defendants are clearly guilty. He did qualify his position by arguing that such acquittals should be given only for non-violent drug offenses and burglaries, on the grounds that these are "victimless crimes". But burglary can hardly be considered a victimless crime -- as anyone who has ever been burglarized can readily attest. It is also difficult to understand how Professor Butler can excuse black burglars if he has any sympathy for the victims of burglary, many of whom are themselves black.

It is just as difficult to understand how the overrepresentation of blacks as criminals can be attributed solely to a racist criminal justice system. To be sure, detective Mark Furhman revealed an unconscionable bigotry when he was exposed on tape making racial slurs and bragging about arresting blacks without probable cause. But if the average police officer were inclined to make racially motivated arrests, the best chances for him to do so would be for crimes in which there are no witnesses, such as burglary and drunk driving. Yet the arrest rates for blacks are highest for crimes involving a witness (such as for rape, mugging and assault), and a good deal lower for crimes that do not involve a witness (such as for burglary and drunk driving) -- just the opposite of what we would expect if black arrests were motivated largely by police racism.

In crimes of violence for which black arrest rates are the highest, the victims usually get a good look at the assailant, and are not going to say that a black person committed the crime if the person they saw is white. They want the real criminal arrested. The only exception would be if the person reporting the crime were the perpetrator (or an accessory) and were attempting to pin the blame on someone else. A case of this sort occurred in Boston in 1989 where a white man killed his wife and blamed it on a black man. A similar case was reported in 1994 involving a white South Carolina mother -- the notorious Susan Smith -- who claimed to have been the victim of a car-jacking by a black man in which her two children were abducted. It was later discovered that Smith had murdered her own children and was attempting to cover her tracks. But aside from cases like these, which are as rare as they are deplorable, people are not going to misrepresent the identity of the perpetrator. Furthermore, as we have seen, over 85 percent of the single-offender crimes of violence committed by blacks are against other blacks. These black victims would not misrepresent the perpetrator as black, if the person they saw were white. Nor would the police be able to arrest a black person if the victim were to identify the criminal as white.

In the O.J. Simpson trial, jurors apparently bought the argument by Johnnie Cochran that the police, and especially Mark Fuhrman, framed Simpson. Yet the defense provided no evidence for their allegation. They simply asserted it, as if it were self-evident, given Mark Furhman's racist comments. But if Fuhrman had been the type to go around planting evidence and framing blacks, notwithstanding his boastful embellishments, then why, given his 20-years on the force, couldn't Simpson's "dream team" find at least one black defendant who thought he had been framed by Fuhrman to so testify?! If any such cases existed, Simpson's million dollar defense team would surely have uncovered at least one. So if someone as racist as Mark Furhman didn't conspire to frame blacks, then why assume that such frame-ups are a common practice among police officers? As Vincent Bugliosi points out, police frame-ups are very rare, and usually occur in drug busts in which the suspects are active drug-dealers.

Although there is no denying its existence, police racism cannot account for the over-representation of blacks in the criminal justice system. The principal reason blacks have higher arrest and conviction rates is their higher crime rate. Therefore, anyone seriously interested in protecting civil rights would do well to encourage not only greater police respect for civil liberties, but also more aggressive law enforcement in black neighborhoods. Better police protection in these areas would do much to curtail black crime. In one survey, only 29% of blacks were satisfied with the police protection they received. Moreover, despite the tendency of blacks to view the criminal justice system as racist, 83% believe that the courts do not deal harshly enough with criminals. In fact, according to one New York Times poll, blacks' concern for crime is higher than that of whites. Just as more police are necessary to combat urban crime, so is a stricter, more effective penal system. A vigorous prosecution of violent crime is indispensable to the protection of civil rights. It is no less essential to an improvement in living standards among inner-city residents.

What is most important, however, is a change in philosophy from one in which crime is excused, rationalized and blamed on others to a philosophy in which individual rights and self-responsibility are held in high esteem. That more than anything else is the solution to crime and the antidote to poverty.

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