Across America, riots and protests are taking place in reaction to news of police violence against the black community. Among other things, it has sparked an ongoing discussion in America about institutional racism, along with a debate as to whether it exists.
The fact that we have to have a debate over this question is absurd. Institutional racism has been and continues to be pervasive in America, and to suggest otherwise is to be willfully ignorant of its evidence. The appropriate question is not whether, but rather to what extent it exists.
Here are the numbers:
Institutional racism in American policing
When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male. In spite of being only 12 percent of the population, black people make up 38 percent of arrests for violent crimes. They are twice as likely to be victims of the threat or use of force by the police.
At the current rate of arrests, one out of every three black males born today will go to jail in their lifetime.
Studies show that these disparities are not caused by the black community being more criminal, but by “the implicit racial association of black Americans with dangerous or aggressive behavior,” which “significantly increases police officers’ willingness to employ violent or even deadly force against them.”
In specific localities, the unequal enforcement of our laws is even starker: Black people make up 15 percent of drivers, 42 percent of stops, and 73 percent of arrests on the NJ turnpike, although they violate traffic laws at “almost identical rates,” according to The Sentencing Project. In spite of white people being more likely to be caught carrying guns, drugs and other contraband, 52 percent of those stopped by New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy were black and 32 percent were hispanic. Only 9 percent were white.
This is not due to black people being more likely to live in “high crime areas.” Subsequent analyses have shown that the same disparities occur when controlling for local crime rates, and that the actual crime rate of a given area is not at all predictive of a police officer’s justification for a search to be that it was in a “high crime area.”
Institutional racism does not stop at the arrest. A black-on-white murder is twice as likely to receive the death penalty than a white-on-black murder, and a prosecutor is “significantly more likely to upgrade cases to felony murder status in cases in which defendants were black rather than white.” There is also racial bias in jury selection, which leads to illegally turning away qualified black jurors at rates as often as 80 percent of the time.
25 percent of juries in death penalty cases have no black members at all, and 70 percent of such juries have two or less. This is problematic when one considers that when a black person is accused of killing a white person, juries with five or more white males are considerably more likely to convict and hand down a death penalty than they would otherwise. Having a single black man on the jury substantially reduces that chance.
Black people are sentenced to 20 percent longer prison terms than white people for similar crimes. For the same crime of the same severity, black people are 38 percent more likely to be sentenced to death.
Killing black people in America also leads to less severe punishment than killing white people. White and black people each make up about half of murder victims every year, but 77 percent of people executed killed a white person, while only 13 percent had killed a black person.
The War on Drugs
The so-called War on Drugs has also had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the black community. Only 13 percent of drug users are black — in line with their share of the overall population — but they account for 36 percent of those arrested and 46 percent of those convicted for drug-related offenses.
In spite of crack and powder cocaine being being equally addictive and “pharmacologically identical,” you needed 100 times more powder cocaine to receive the same sentence as someone possessing crack cocaine until President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. Now the ratio is only 18:1. Black users make up 80 percent of crack cocaine users, but only 28 percent of powder cocaine users, and the sentencing differences between the two has led to a racial disparity in drug sentencing.
59 percent of those in prison for drug offenses are black, and a black man convicted of a drug offense spends as much time in prison as a white man convicted of a violent offense.
Combine all of these problems with the justice system with the fact that black people are 21 times more likely to be shot by the police and the recent protests should come as no surprise. The system has not worked and does not work for the black community.
Racism against black children
Even black children are treated as second-class citizens. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children and make up 58 percent of children admitted in prisons. After the age of 10, studies show that black children are consistently dehumanized and less likely to be considered innocent compared to other children of the same age. Black juvenile offenders are considerably more likely to be viewed as adults than their white counterparts.
Black children are three times more likely than white children to be suspended. Even among preschoolers, of whom black children make up 18 percent, they are nearly half of all out of school suspensions. Black students make up 39 percent of all expulsions, and over 70 percent of students referred to the police are either black or hispanic.
Even disabled children are not free from racism: 21 percent of students with disabilities are black, but black students who are disabled make up 44 percent of disabled students put in mechanical restraints and 42 percent of those placed in seclusion.
In the workplace
Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates overall. The jobless rate for black people has almost doubled that of white people for the last 60 years, and people with “black sounding names” need to send 50 percent more job applications than people with “white sounding names” to get a call back.
Racial discrimination in hiring is so pronounced that a white applicant with a criminal record is more likely to get an interview than a black man with a clean record.
Studies show that for every $10,000 increase in yearly salary between jobs, the share of black people holding that job falls by 7 percent.
Poverty and the black community
Given these unequal opportunities, it’s no surprise that black people are in such severe poverty. In many ways, the gap between white and black has gotten larger of late. Infant mortality rates are higher among the black population, and the gap between them and the white population has been growing steadily. 72.9 percent of white people own homes, compared to only 43.5 percent of black people. White median household wealth is $91,405, black median household wealth is $6,446, a gap which has tripled in 25 years. If black America was its own country, it would have wealth levels just over third world nations like Morocco and the Dominican Republic, and about 1/5th of the global average.
Suppressing the black vote
Minorities tend to vote for Democrats, so it is no surprise that their efforts to better their situation has been met with attempts by Republicans to suppress their vote. From complaints that voting locations and dates are too convenient for black people, to one county chairman wanting to reduce voting hours to stop the “African American voter-turnout machine,” the Republicans seem shockingly unashamed by their attempts to prevent “lazy blacks” from voting. Their comprehensive “Keep-In-The-Vote” program includes early voting restrictions and voter ID laws. And when voter ID laws have been struck down, Republicans have resorted to lying about voting requirements with billboards in minority neighborhoods or otherwise targeting minority populations. These laws claim to be intended to prevent (non-existent) voter fraud, but more often they end up preventing American citizens from voting.
The black community has been consistently failed and obstructed by the system. Martin Luther King Jr. once responded to riots in the following way (emphasis added):
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
The recent unrest in Baltimore and around the country is the result of generations of mistreatment and oppression. Rather than focusing on the symptoms, we need to focus on the causes: systematic, institutional oppression that has been largely ignored for decades.
The numbers are clear: America mistreats black people, both in and out of the criminal justice system. It is a fact that police apply the law more harshly on black suspects than on white ones. It is a fact that black people are treated, from preschool, as victims of the system, and taught that they are lesser citizens as compared to white people.
They have a right to be angry. They should be angry. Every American should be angry that our brothers and sisters are being treated in this way. Rather than turning a blind eye to it when it’s politically or culturally convenient, we should be confronting these inequalities head-on. These are things that every individual American should feel personally offended by, and which should cause each and every one of us to demand change — both from those who we have put in power, and from ourselves.