Center for Equal Opportunity

The nation’s only conservative think tank devoted to issues of race and ethnicity.


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Racial Disparities in Incarceration Rates

Last week, at the invitation of Maryland’s state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Center for Equal Opportunity submitted testimony for a hearing on the subject of “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Rates” in Maryland’s state prisons.  It is becoming common to assert that such disparities – that is, the fact that some racial groups are “disproportionately” represented among prison inmates – somehow prove that the criminal justice system must be racist.

I began my testimony (full version available here) by saying that, if the racial makeup of Maryland’s prisons differs from the racial makeup of Maryland’s general population, the two obvious explanations are (a) that the different racial groups commit crimes at different rates and, therefore, are convicted of and sentenced for crimes at different rates, or (b) that this is not true but that in some way the criminal justice system catches, convicts, and sentences people of some racial backgrounds more than it does people of other racial backgrounds. 

The main point of my statement wasthat there is overwhelming evidence that the former is much more of a factor than the latter, and that it would be wrong to conclude that the racial disparities in incarceration rates are evidence of widespread discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Racial Disparities in Crime Rates

It cannot be plausibly denied that there are large racial disparities in the rates at which crime is committed.  I presented the committee with much data to back this up. And I also told the committee that there is “almost no reliable evidence of racial bias in the criminal justice system’s handling of ordinary violent and non-violent offenses,” citing a recent book in this area (Professor Amy Wax’sRace, Wrongs, and Remedies).

Much of the discussion of racial disparities in incarceration rates these days focuses on drug-related crime (by the way, even if there were a problem in this area, it would not explain the racial disparities that exist for other crimes as well).  But it is dubious to assert that the drug laws had racist origins and are enforced with overwhelming racism (do the police turn a blind eye, for example, to “white” drugs like meth and oxycontin?).  And if drug dealers weren’t being arrested, the same critics would say, “White people invent these drugs and they don’t arrest anyone because it is all part of a conspiracy to destroy black people.”

Reason for Crime Racial Disparities

I then went on to make the point that it would actually be surprising if there were not racial disparities in incarceration rates, since there are marked racial disparities in illegitimacy rates and there is a high correlation between getting into trouble with the law (and other bad social outcomes) and growing up in a home without a father. 

The federal government released its latest figures on births last fall, and the illegitimacy numbers by race and ethnicity remain basically where they have been for some time. More than 7 out of 10 African Americans (72.5 percent) are born out of wedlock, along with more than 6 out of 10 American Indians and Alaska Natives (65.6 percent), and more than 5 out of 10 Hispanics (53.3 percent) – versus fewer than 3 out of 10 whites (29.0 percent) and fewer than 2 out of 10 Asians and Pacific Islanders (17.0 percent).    There is an obvious connection between these numbers and how well individuals in the different groups are doing – which ones are getting into the more selective universities, and which ones are going to prison.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution wrote just last month, “[A] wealth of research strongly suggests that marriage is good for children. Those who live with their biological parents do better in school and are less likely to get pregnant or arrested. … Meanwhile, children who spend time in single-parent families are more likely to misbehave, get sick, drop out of high school and be unemployed.”The Center for Equal Opportunity’s Linda Chavez quotes President Obama himself “in his book The Audacity of Hope (2006), acknowledging that the breakdown of the black family ‘reflects a casualness toward sex and child-rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable – and for which there is simply no excuse.’” 


I concluded my testimony by saying that, if the laws on the books are less vigorously enforced, it is the vast majority of African Americans – those who are law-abiding – who will suffer, since African Americans are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime. 

Many on the left would like to believe that racial disparities in incarceration rates are explained by – indeed prove – the fact that the criminal justice system is racist.  That is because, if the criminal justice system is racist, then they have a more pleasant explanation for why the prisons are filled, not exclusively but disproportionately, with black men. More pleasant, that is, than the truth: That a disproportionate number of criminals are black men.  And the reason for this, as more and more African Americans are fessing up, is: Seven out of 10 African Americans are born out of wedlock, and it is hard to raise children–especially little boys – in environments already filled with drugs and crimein homes that have no father. They grow up, and they make bad, irresponsible, criminal choices.

But again, rather than face these unpleasant truths, why not blame the racist criminal justice system? Well, that may be more pleasant in the short run, but in the longer run it just means that the real problems will not be addressed.  And to pretend that racism explains the racial disparities in incarceration rates, is just that: Pretending that reality is something different from what it really is.

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We received some very positive feedback from my email last week, urging school systems not to follow the Obama administration’s defective “guidance,” encouraging race-based school assignment in order to achieve greater “diversity.”  One person sent it on to a school board member:  Good idea!  Please do so in your own communities.  My critique of the guidance is available here.