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Mar 14 2012

America’s Racist Criminal Justice System, Part 2

I just finished an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and I talked about the fact that some of the numbers and statistics in her book shocked the conscience, even for someone like me who has written about our criminal injustice system for years. The racial bias exists at every step in the process, each one magnifying the last. This is the second in a series of posts in which I’ll address how the system creates a permanent minority underclass.

It starts with the police and the choices they make. Study after study shows that the various racial groups buy and sell drugs at nearly the same rates, and that drug transactions are almost entirely racially segregated — blacks sell to blacks, whites sell to whites, Latinos sell to Latinos, and so forth. But police departments make drugs bought and sold by minorities almost their exclusive focus. When making decisions about who to pull over on the road, who to stop on the sidewalk and question or frisk, they almost invariably choose minorities over whites. And the numbers are absolutely staggering.

A study of stops by the New Jersey State Police on the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, found that 15% of the drivers on the turnpike were minorities, but blacks were 42% of those stopped for a traffic violation and 72% of those subsequently arrested — despite the fact that blacks and whites were equally as likely to be violating traffic laws at the time. 77% of all searches were of minorities. A similar study in Maryland found that 17% of drivers on a major highway were black, but 70% of those stopped and searched were black. For minorities on the whole, they constituted 21% of all drivers but 80% of those who were stopped and searched.

But here’s the even more important finding. In both of those studies, whites who were pulled over and searched were actually more likely to have illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In New Jersey, whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband than blacks and five times more likely than Latinos. The same thing held true in Maryland. So even though white drivers were far more likely to be caught breaking the law if stopped and searched, black and Latino drivers were far, far more likely to be pulled over by the police.

Lots of other studies back that up. In one county in Florida, 5% of motorists were black or Latino; more than 80% of those stopped were black or Latino. In Illinois, 8% of the population is Latino but more than 30% of those stopped were Latino — and again, whites were significantly more likely to be found with drugs when they were pulled over. In Oakland, blacks were twice as likely to be stopped and three times more likely to be searched than whites.

In New York City, the police routinely stop and frisk pedestrians walking down the street, more than half a million people a year. More than 80% of them are black or Latino. Between 1997 and 2006, more than 350,000 people in NYC were arrested for marijuana possession; blacks were five times more likely than whites to be arrested, even though we know that whites smoke marijuana at slightly higher rates than blacks.

And that’s just the first step. Once someone is arrested, it’s up to the prosecutor to decide what to charge them. And blacks and Latinos routinely face far more serious charges for the same offense than whites. They also get to decide whether to charge them in state or federal court (federal laws carry harsher penalties). In one study in California, of 2200 cases referred to federal court for crack, not a single one of the defendants was white. Not one.

When challenged on these mind-blowing numbers, the police and prosecutors justify it with circular reasoning. Look at our prisons and jails, they say, they’re filled with minorities. That proves that minorities commit drug crimes more often, so that’s where we put out focus. But our prisons and jails are filled with minorities because of the discretionary choices they make, not because minorities actually commit more crimes (especially drug crimes, which make up the vast majority of those in prison). They choose to focus on poor neighborhoods filled with minorities rather than on the college kid selling pot to his buddies or the corporate lawyer doing coke in the executive men’s room. Those choices create the reality that they then use to justify continuing to make the same choice.

But that’s just the beginning. Once someone is arrested or convicted, the real trouble begins. I’ll look at the next step in the process in the next installment.

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  1. 1
    matty1

    To play devils advocate here focusing on poor neighbourhoods makes a kind of sense for the police. Someone with a low income who uses an addictive drug like cocaine is more likely to steal to pay for it than a highly paid lawyer on the same drug.

    Of course this falls apart if we remember that the law doesn’t actually allow for punishing people who *might* become thieves in the future and it still doesn’t justify the racial angle.

  2. 2
    Wes

    But here’s the even more important finding. In both of those studies, whites who were pulled over and searched were actually more likely to have illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In New Jersey, whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband than blacks and five times more likely than Latinos. The same thing held true in Maryland. So even though white drivers were far more likely to be caught breaking the law if stopped and searched, black and Latino drivers were far, far more likely to be pulled over by the police.

    I don’t know if that last sentence is the right conclusion to draw from this. The difference in rate of who’s caught is probably a statistical artifact of the biased sampling process.

    My guess would be that if whites were pulled over at the same rate as blacks and latinos, they would probably have a similar rate of drug possession. What the statistics probably show is that whites are more likely to be pulled over for legitimate reasons, while minorities are more likely to be pulled over for illegitimate reasons (hence the lower rate of possession among minorities).

    In other words, it’s not that whites are more likely to be caught with drugs (which would seem a little strange if your earlier statement that all the racial groups do drugs at roughly the same rate); it’s that it’s more likely that minorities will be pulled over even if there’s no good reason to think they have any drugs.

    Long story short: The correct conclusion (I think), is not that whites are more likely to be caught, but that minorities are more likely to be pulled over for no good reason.

    When challenged on these mind-blowing numbers, the police and prosecutors justify it with circular reasoning. Look at our prisons and jails, they say, they’re filled with minorities. That proves that minorities commit drug crimes more often, so that’s where we put out focus.

    Personally, this is the most frustrating aspect of institutionalized racism in this country. The racists create the problem by disproportionately imprisoning minorities, and the point to the problem that they created as justification for more racism. It’s just like the homophobes who point to the higher rates of suicide and depression among homosexuals as justification for treating them like shit. And somehow, the public falls for this! What the hell?

  3. 3
    Didaktylos

    @Wes, #2

    (sarcasm)

    No, what the statistics actually show is that minorities, being criminally inclined by nature, are better at hiding what they’re up too than whites who are generally honest by nature (and when not are easily caught, due their heart not being in it) …

    (/sarcasm)

  4. 4
    Wes

    Oh, by the way, I assume you interviewed her for your radio show (which I really like). Just a quick FYI: your show unfortunately shares its name with another radio show by some anti-semitic Catholic asshole named E. Michael Jones. His show came up first in Google when I searched for yours, which really sucks. Just figured you’d want to know that, seeing as it might be possible that someone would mistake his show for yours. It might be good to have some sort of statement like “We have no affiliation with that other asshole who does a show called Culture Wars Radio.”

  5. 5
    Wes

    (sarcasm)

    No, what the statistics actually show is that minorities, being criminally inclined by nature, are better at hiding what they’re up too than whites who are generally honest by nature (and when not are easily caught, due their heart not being in it) …

    (/sarcasm)

    What’s sad is that what’s sarcasm for us is called “rational thinking” by lots of people on the right wing. I could totally see some bigot making exactly that argument in total seriousness. In fact, I’d be shocked if it hadn’t already been made a hundred times.

  6. 6
    Pteryxx

    What’s sad is that what’s sarcasm for us is called “rational thinking” by lots of people on the right wing. I could totally see some bigot making exactly that argument in total seriousness.

    Huh. Good to see you making that observation.

  7. 7
    gesres

    Could ethnicity here be a surrogate for socio-economic class? I confess that if I were looking to pick the drug dealer from a group of people, I’d pick the guy dressed like a bum or driving a beat-up truck, regardless of the ethnicity involved.

  8. 8
    Wes

    Could ethnicity here be a surrogate for socio-economic class? I confess that if I were looking to pick the drug dealer from a group of people, I’d pick the guy dressed like a bum or driving a beat-up truck, regardless of the ethnicity involved.

    Maybe not. I knew plenty of drug dealers in high school who didn’t dress like bums or drive old trucks (all were either white or Asian, as well). Plus, you can make good money dealing drugs, so it’s doubtful that you could expect the dealers to look poor.

    Also these stops aren’t just about getting the dealers. It sounds to me like they’re just talking about anyone carrying drugs, which makes socioeconomic class not a good indicator since affluent people do drugs too. Racial bias in pulling cars over is probably the best explanation.

  9. 9
    Abel Crunk Skunk

    Tangentially related, but is there a way to listen to the radio show as a podcast without itunes?

  10. 10
    sheila

    @Wes: Imagine you’re a drug dealer with cocaine to move. Are you going to pick white mules or black mules? (Hint: the black mules are far more likely to be caught, in which case you lose your merchandise.)

    Confirmation bias seems a far more likely explanation for non-whites being stopped and searched.

  11. 11
    harold

    In New Jersey, whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband than blacks and five times more likely than Latinos

    As was noted, that could indicate that the threshold for checking whites out was lower.

    The Latino thing doesn’t surprise me, except that I might have expected the rate to be even lower.

    Could ethnicity here be a surrogate for socio-economic class? I confess that if I were looking to pick the drug dealer from a group of people, I’d pick the guy dressed like a bum or driving a beat-up truck, regardless of the ethnicity involved.

    As someone who grew up poor and worked as a dishwasher before and during college, I am pretty amazed by this stereotype.

    I do realize that in rural areas – I spent a lot of my childhood in a rural area – there is some tendency for very poor people to make as well as use intoxicating substances.

    However, the point of dealing drugs is to make more money than you can honestly.

    Any drug dealer who looks like a bum and drives a beat-up truck is either disguising themselves, or doing a poor job of being a drug dealer.

    Of course, you probably knew that, at some level.

    For full disclosure, I don’t support drug prohibition, but whether they’re legal or illegal, I have no personal interest in dealing most “recreational” drugs.

  12. 12
    gesres

    I knew plenty of drug dealers in high school who didn’t dress like bums

    Knowing a few well-dressed dealers is just anecdotal. What percentage of all drug dealers are well-dressed? And I seem to recall that the average income for a drug dealer is pretty low…they don’t all drive Ferraris.

    Regardless, even if affluence is no predictor, at least that would make the pull-overs non-racist. I would really like to see if the research corrected for this other source of bias before I accept their conclusions, which are mind-boggling.

  13. 13
    Chiroptera

    I think that some people need to review their statistics, Bayes’ Theorem in particular.

    Even if we accept for the sake of argument that drug dealers are more likely to be poor or are more likely to be black, that doesn’t give you any indication on how likely a random poor person (or black person) is going to be a drug dealer.

    P(A|B) != P(B|A)

  14. 14
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    @gesres
    Why exactly do you find it so hard to believe that the research shows what it clearly does? Correcting for things like socioeconomic status is standard practice for this type of study, it’s vanishingly unlikely that it was missed. Particularly since we’re not talking about a single study, there have been quite a large number of them performed in a many areas, and the results are similar across all of them.

  15. 15
    harold

    Knowing a few well-dressed dealers is just anecdotal. What percentage of all drug dealers are well-dressed? And I seem to recall that the average income for a drug dealer is pretty low…they don’t all drive Ferraris.

    Honest people say something stupid and then realize it.

    Trolls say something stupid and double down.

    Take your obnoxious, unjustified, arrogant bias against people who happen to have a lower income than you and shove it.

    You don’t “deserve” to be driving in something that isn’t an “old pickup truck”. You mainly got that by the sheer luck of having ancestors, many of whom, most ironically, you would sneer at if you could see them, who were both lucky and hard-working enough to let you be born into it. Instead of being mature enough to be grateful for the opportunity you’ve had, you sneer at people who have less.

    George Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.

    You seem to have been born somewhere around second base, and think you’re Babe Ruth.

  16. 16
    Wes

    @Wes: Imagine you’re a drug dealer with cocaine to move. Are you going to pick white mules or black mules? (Hint: the black mules are far more likely to be caught, in which case you lose your merchandise.)

    I don’t see where in the statistics that it said minorities with drugs are more likely to be caught. It said that the percentage who were carrying as a percentage of the total who were pulled over was greater for whites than minority. (If I misunderstood this, please someone let me know. But I read it as a proportion of those who were pulled over.) That says nothing about likelihood of getting caught for the whole population (which would include both those who were pulled over and those who weren’t).

    Regardless, even if affluence is no predictor, at least that would make the pull-overs non-racist. I would really like to see if the research corrected for this other source of bias before I accept their conclusions, which are mind-boggling.

    More information is always a good thing to have, and correlating affluence with how often one is pulled over and searched would be interesting. But, at the same time, I’ve never seen any evidence that drug dealers are more likely to “dress like a bum” or “drive an old truck”.

    But the statistics in conjunction with other evidence of racism (racial profiling, etc.) I think it’s safe to say, at least provisionally, that racism is a factor in what’s going on here.

  17. 17
    Ben P

    Knowing a few well-dressed dealers is just anecdotal. What percentage of all drug dealers are well-dressed? And I seem to recall that the average income for a drug dealer is pretty low…they don’t all drive Ferraris.

    There’s a couple issues involved with this I think.

    1. Many drug dealers are also drug users, indeed they become dealers to make money to fuel their habit. They don’t end up much better off financially.

    2. Many drug dealers are in effect, buying at retail prices and attempting to sell at slightly higher retail prices. The people who make a killing in the drug business are the wholesalers (a la George Jung)

    3. This is also influenced by the fact that the drug distribution system operates heavily on a form of informal credit, and despite perhaps not being formally educated, many people in the drug businesses are very astute businessmen. If I have $10,000 in drugs and you want to sell them, but don’t have the money, I give you the drugs and you owe me $12,0000 next week. Whether or not you can sell the drugs at a profit is not my problem because someone will break your knees (or kill you) if you can’t get the money. Meanwhile you’re taking the risk of holding the drugs and getting stopped by the cops.

  18. 18
    Michael Heath

    Ed and Wes @ 2,

    Fantastic posts.

  19. 19
    marcus

    I am fucking astounded that people will agree to let the the police in NY “stop and frisk” them. I know how intimidating they can be but, really? Has anyone refused and sued? What is the ACLU’s take on this?

  20. 20
    gesres

    Why exactly do you find it so hard to believe that the research shows what it clearly does?

    Because people afflicted with confirmation bias always think that something is obvious when it conforms to their expectations, so the fact that you find this research “clearly” shows something isn’t very meaningful.

    My question is legitimate and exactly the sort of thing that should be asked when scientific research is presented, particularly when you want to believe it. It’s an aspect of intellectual integrity.

  21. 21
    gesres

    Chiroptera wrote:

    Even if we accept for the sake of argument that drug dealers are more likely to be poor or are more likely to be black, that doesn’t give you any indication on how likely a random poor person (or black person) is going to be a drug dealer.

    Agreed, but that’s not what we need here, is it? Let’s say that ALL drug dealers are poor; while the probability that any random poor person is a drug dealer is low, we know that the probability of a rich person being a drug dealer is zero, don’t we? Therefore, it would make no sense to stop them at all.

  22. 22
    Chiroptera

    gesres, #12: What percentage of all drug dealers are well-dressed?

    Except that question isn’t even relevant to anything in the OP either.

    The relevant question isn’t how likely a drug dealer is dressed poorly. That’s only interesting if you want to try to gage how likely a person is poorly dressed if you already know he deals drugs.

    The proper question is: what percentage of poorly dressed people deal drugs?

  23. 23
    Chiroptera

    gesres, #21: …while the probability that any random poor person is a drug dealer is low….

    Well, then it doesn’t make much sense to stop poor people, either.

    Unless of course poor is just a surrogate for “person of color,” then it begins to make a bit more sense.

  24. 24
    Who Knows?

    I’m envious you’ve gotten to speak with Michelle Alexander. I’ve only heard her in Youtube videos, she is an great speaker.

  25. 25
    harold

    The proper question is: what percentage of poorly dressed people deal drugs?

    And unless that percentage is enormously high, the fact that someone is poorly dressed would constitute a reasonable cause for suspecting them of being a “drug dealer”.

    Of course, Ed’s post has nothing to do with “poorly dressed” people being stopped.

    I notice that the informal term “drug dealer” is causing confusion here. I’ve always differentiated between the final consumers of drugs and the dealers. It’s my fairly strong impression that people who stay poor because of a substance abuse problem (and may have gotten poor that way) mainly struggle to get all the drugs they want. I don’t have statistics on this, but it is pretty much my impression, and I stand by this, that when you see a guy who “looks like a bum” with a lot of fresh track marks on his arm, he’s usually a guy who buys, not sells. In fact, I would guess that that’s a guy who, when he gets some, is unwilling to sell for any price. I mean, why would people be doing things like sex work and so on to get drugs, if they were established dealers?

    I didn’t make this up. I’ve almost never heard law enforcement state that their goal is to capture a lot of poorly dressed people with substance abuse issues. They nearly always state that they prioritize capturing higher level dealers, whom one would not expect to be poorly dressed. I’m not endorsing this; I oppose prohibition as ineffective – it’s just what I’ve heard my whole life.

  26. 26
    harold

    Perhaps “dress like a bum” and “drives an old pickup truck” were intended as proxy for “is black”.

    If so, that surprises me. Usually racists complain that blacks wear “expensive sports gear” and “drive Cadillacs”. My take was that this was a bigoted reference to low income white people. That may reflect my personal background, though.

    At any rate, in math, when something is trivially obvious, it is often noted to be true “by inspection”, rather than justifying a complicated proof.

    It is very common for people to look poor and drive old vehicles, or even to be outright homeless, without them being drug dealers. That is true by inspection. Therefore a strategy of wasting public resources on unjustified stops of people merely for looking poor would be absurd.

    To formally study whether “drug dealers” usually look “like bums” would require a reasonably objective definition for the term “drug dealer” and the term “looks like a bum”. The former is easily available – the law already defines various levels of “intent to sell” based on amount of drugs in a person’s possession. The latter could be accomplished. My suspicion is that such a study would 1) not support the conjecture that drug dealers look “like bums” and 2) be a waste of money, but it could be done.

  27. 27
    Chiroptera

    harold, #24: I notice that the informal term “drug dealer” is causing confusion here.

    Actually, what is causing the confusion is the proposition that race is simply being used as a surrogate for socio-economic class, rather than the far more parsimonious conclusion is that it really is about race.

  28. 28
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    @Gesres #20
    This is hardly the first time I have encountered these statistics, and I have read several of the studies involved. Nor is it the first time I have encountered apparently disingenuous responses to this data. It is trivially easy to find out more details, I recommend you try doing so before trying to sound knowledgeable on the topic.

  29. 29
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    HTML fail there. This is what I meant to put up there. I’m better at research than I am at html.

  30. 30
    llewelly

    gesres | March 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm:

    Could ethnicity here be a surrogate for socio-economic class?

    I haven’t read the studies specifically referred to here, but it has been my experience that researchers in this area are typically aware of the correlation between ethnicity and socio-economic class, and the reported results are already adjusted to remove the correlation; they report what remains to be explained after the correlation between ethnicity and socio-economic class has been removed.

    I confess that if I were looking to pick the drug dealer from a group of people, I’d pick the guy dressed like a bum or driving a beat-up truck, regardless of the ethnicity involved.

    There is no evidence whatever that poor people use drugs or possess drugs more frequently than wealthy people. In fact, when it comes to expensive drugs, such as cocaine, poor people use them with much less frequency – as they are more difficult to afford.

  31. 31
    gesres

    Dalillama wrote:

    I recommend you try doing so before trying to sound knowledgeable on the topic.

    I’m not trying to sound like anything, I’m asking a question to people who claim to be knowledgeable about this topic. Stop trying to sound like an jerk.

  32. 32
    gesres

    llewelly wrote:

    researchers in this area are typically aware…There is no evidence whatever that poor people use drugs or possess drugs more frequently

    llewelly, thank you for a courteous, rational response to my question. That’s the sort of reply that I should expect on blogs devoted towards freethinking.

  33. 33
    gesres

    Chiroptera says:

    Well, then it doesn’t make much sense to stop poor people, either.

    I didn’t say that it did, I was just looking for alternative explanations for the discrepancy. If I’m going to quote a statistic, I want to be able to defend it.

    Any law that gives the government a huge amount of latitude to harass random citizens is pretty suspect in my eyes. I’m leaning towards drug decriminalization these days.

  34. 34
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I apologize for the slightly vitriolic response, but as I said, this topic often attracts people taking a similar tack to what you started with, who are not doing so in good faith, but rather because they are either steeped in privilege or outright bigots, who refuse to actually look at the numbers. It’s gotten to the point in discussions I’ve had elsewhere that I’ve stopped assuming good faith in most cases.

  35. 35
    Trickster Goddess

    All this discussion about “drug dealers” is a complete red herring. The article say nothing at all to imply that those arrested were dealers; it only says that people were “found with illegal drugs or contraband”. This would include anyone with a single joint on them, or even a roach left in the ash tray.

    To make the assumption that everyone is in possession of drugs is also a dealer is rather egregious.

  36. 36
    Childermass

    (sarcasm)

    No, what the statistics actually show is that minorities, being criminally inclined by nature, are better at hiding what they’re up too than whites who are generally honest by nature (and when not are easily caught, due their heart not being in it) …

    (/sarcasm)

    It might actually be easier to find the stuff in the white guys car. Blacks know they are being targeted. If you know you are likely to be pulled over you are going to be more careful than if you don’t expect to be pulled over.

  37. 37
    democommie

    I don’t do math, so anything involving probability, statistics and math is pretty much incomprehensible to me.

    One question I have, though, is about the methodology. If they are pulling over people who look, “suspicious”, are they pulling over equal %ges of affluent and “poor” people in all racial groups? I mean, I’ve known lots of cops in my life. The vast majority of them are racists–pure and simple. Do I know all cops? No. Do I know enough of them to not be just making a wild guess? Yup.

    Is there a filter in the data for checking what %age of drivers stopped by police for looking, “suspicious”, are in various income brackets.

  38. 38
    harold

    gesres –

    My initial reply to you was very civil and explanatory (#11). I usually favor civility.

    However, you aren’t “owed” civility any more than anyone else is.

    If you say something that is biased in an unpleasant way, it may provoke a response.

  39. 39
    harold

    Chiroptera is correct here –

    Actually, what is causing the confusion is the proposition that race is simply being used as a surrogate for socio-economic class, rather than the far more parsimonious conclusion is that it really is about race.

    As far as profiling by NJ police forces, it is a matter of public record that ethnicity has been the main factor in the past http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jersey_State_Police#Racial_Profiling

    There is substantial but much less severe discrimination against poor or working class looking people of all ethnic groups, in the US, as well. I don’t have statistics for that but it is my strong subjective impression, and I can demonstrate it to any other white person who wants to try spending two days with me, one looking affluent and one looking hard working but poor, and see what happens.

  40. 40
    scienceavenger

    Gesres says: My question [of whether the study controlled for economic status] is legitimate and exactly the sort of thing that should be asked when scientific research is presented, particularly when you want to believe it. It’s an aspect of intellectual integrity.

    That depends. True, it is an aspect of intellectual integrity to make sure a study controls for relevant mitigating variables before accepting its conclusions. However, it is a common tactic among those who do not wish their worldview challenged to pretend to be doing this while really just looking for an excuse to dismiss all such studies. No need to actually show there is a flaw, just pose the possibility and dismiss it on that basis. This view is rampant among partisan GOPers, and racists in general.

    So, if you look into the study, see if the bias you pose is present, come back with the results, and modify your view as is appropriate, THEN you are demonstrating intellectual integrity. Posing the question without looking for verification, while dismissing the study as if it had been verified, is the opposite of intellectual integrity. It’s a pseudointellectual way of keeping one’s worldview intact by dismissing all counter-intuitive (to you) studies.

    So go for it, what’s the answer? [hint - the people who do these studies are not idiots, so anything that seems obvious to us was probably obvious to them as well]

  41. 41
    scienceavenger

    True story: helping a friend and cop move into his new house about a year ago in a small Texas town. A police car drives by, very slowly, obviously checking us out. “Checking to see we aren’t burglars?” I ask. “Nope, checking to see we are white”. He wasn’t kidding.

  1. 42
    齿轮泵

    齿轮泵…

    [...]America’s Racist Criminal Justice System, Part 2 | Dispatches from the Culture Wars[...]…

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