Updated: Jul 27, 2020
An often-cited but misleading statistic is that Black people make up only 13% of the population but commit about 50% of crimes. However, despite its frequent use the conversation around this statistic often stops prematurely. When presented with these numbers some chalk it up to Black people simply being more criminal and more violent than white people, whether due to inescapable biological differences or a Black subculture that promotes violence and crime. The danger in this is that it discourages helpful discourse and promotes racist ideologies that stem from the colonial era. Many studies have since been conducted to explain this disparity but the unfortunate truth is that they are not discussed in the mainstream nearly enough.
This article will explore some of the identified causes for this statistic and provide resources that go much further in-depth concerning the topic at hand. It is important to note that not every cause for this disparity can be discussed effectively in a short article. Numerous books and articles have been written on the subject, each one explaining different causes for disparities between crime rates and demographics. For instance, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010) recently gained attention for its analysis of the criminal justice system as an oppressive replacement for the explicitly racist laws of the slavery and segregation eras. The intent of this article is only to encourage people to educate themselves on these topics so that healthy discussions can be held in order to make significant progress in the betterment of our communities.
According to 2014 data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the number of Black offenders in single victim/single offender homicides is nearly the same as the number of white offenders. This means that, yes, while Black people make up around 13% of the population they are convicted for homicide at nearly the same rate as white people, who make up about 76% of the population (U.S. Census Bureau 2019). Now, facing this reality we must ask ourselves why this disparity exists. The most important reason: poverty.
The issue in crime-plagued communities is a lack of access to resources; the connections between poverty and crime are deep and they are many. A connection you might feel inclined to jump to is between poverty and theft, but an analysis that stops here doesn't even scratch the surface. For example, in the U.S., where someone goes to school is determined by where they live, and the funding that goes into public schools comes from the taxes paid in the district where each school is located. This is important because it means that someone's socioeconomic status has a direct effect on the quality of their schooling. As explained in an article by Brookings Institution, school funding is directly related to test scores, and in the long-run, funding also impacts years of completed schooling and future income, meaning students who attend better-funded schools are more likely to succeed in terms of education and pay. This means that children born in poverty will likely continue to live in poverty in adulthood and raise their children in a similar environment to the one they were raised in, perpetuating a vicious cycle. This is supported by a publication authored by Patrick Sharkey, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at NYU, which states that growing up in neighborhood poverty greatly increases the chances of downward mobility and may decrease the chances of upward mobility. (This publication, titled Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap, explores and highlights the lack of upward mobility by Black people in America compared to Whites.)
Why does this matter? In a 2016 study by professors Lesley McAra and Susan McVie, the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime found that violence is very closely related to poverty both at the household and neighborhood levels. This study also shows that this relationship persists even when other indicators of risk (e.g., victimization, care-givers) are controlled for. Additionally, because the study was conducted primarily among white British people, race does not affect the data and conclusions subsequently drawn from them. The study concluded the following:
Young people who become involved in violence are vulnerable, have limited opportunities for gaining status in more pro-social ways, and do not see education as a route to self-advancement. Caught in a set of destructive and conflictual relationships, with limiting negotiating capacity, violence becomes a way of asserting power and asserting a sense of self. Understanding violence as stemming from deeper seated needs and tackling those needs in ways which empower rather than stigmatise [sic] and label would support a less violent, more respectful and inclusive society.
What does this mean? It means that the Black community has become victim to circumstance. This does not negate the wrong done by those who have committed crimes, but it explains why Black people commit violent crimes at higher rates than whites. When slavery was abolished, Blacks were disenfranchised and segregated, forced to live in ghettos. Those same ghettos from the late 19th century are the same crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhoods of today. Despite the numerous gains made in civil rights, Black people have struggled to catch up to white Americans because of the difficulties of class mobility (Sharkey). The effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation continue to haunt us to this day, causing generations of African Americans to live in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and crime.
Unfortunately, there are many more factors that play into this, but there is only so much that can be explored at one time. Other causes for high crime rates among Black people, both within and without the context of violent crime, include but are not limited to the War on Drugs (and other implicitly racist policies), a high concentration of law enforcement in communities of color, and the lack of a nuclear family in African American households, as well as high rates of wrongful convictions and the possible effects of lead poisoning due to poor housing. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a good place to start to understand how the criminal justice system and the War on Drugs only serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime discussed in this article, and the report Race and Wrongful Convictions, which compiles data from the National Registry of Exonerations, unveils how the 13/50 statistic is very inflated. Now, armed with information from this article and other sources, you can now avoid accepting a narrative painted by false and misleading statistics that serve to promote racist and outdated viewpoints.