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Obama: Tilting at Racial Windmills By: John Perazzo
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In an interview published December 10th in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama stated that one of his top priorities as president will be to put an end to racial discrimination in the criminal-justice system. This pledge is consistent with his oft-repeated campaign promise to “eliminate disparities in criminal sentencing,” most notably “the disparity between sentencing [for] crack and powder-based cocaine,” which Obama said was “wrong and should be completely eliminated.” At a presidential primary debate in January 2008, Obama asserted that blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, [and] receive very different sentences…for the same crime.” On another occasion he sounded a similar theme: “We have certain sentences that are based less on the kind of crime you commit than on what you look like and where you come from.” Though neither the media nor the McCain campaign dared to challenge any of Obama’s presumably sacrosanct pronouncements about racism in the justice system, the fact remains that every one of those pronouncements was an unadulterated falsehood.

Long ago, the injustices which Obama references certainly existed, particularly in the South. But it hardly seems appropriate for a supposedly forward-looking President—who founded his entire campaign on a platform of “change” —to continue fighting yesteryear’s battles again and again. Simply put, black offenders do not receive stiffer penalties than white offenders for equivalent crimes—not today, and not at any time in recent decades. The most exhaustive, best designed study of this matter—a three-year analysis of more than 11,000 convicted criminals in California—found that the severity of offenders’ sentences depended heavily on such factors as prior criminal records, the seriousness of the crimes, and whether guns were used in the commission of those crimes. Race was found to have no effect whatsoever. In fact the researcher, Joan Petersilia, was forced to admit that these results contradicted conclusions she had drawn from an earlier study—in which she had not taken prior convictions and the use of firearms into account.[1]

The criminal-justice process is composed of a number of stages, or decision points, at which law-enforcement personnel such as police and judges must decide how to proceed (i.e., whether to make an arrest, whether to convict or acquit a defendant, or whether to impose a harsh or a mild sentence). Contrary to popular mythology, there is no evidence of racial discrimination at any of these decision points. Black overrepresentation is almost entirely at the arrest stage—reflecting the simple fact that the “average” black breaks the law more frequently than the “average” white. The National Crime Victimization Surveys, conducted annually by the Census Bureau, show that statistically the “average” black is far more likely than the “average” white to be identified, by a victim or witness, as the perpetrator of a violent crime. This racial gap, moreover, is approximately equal to the racial gap in actual arrest rates. “As long ago as 1978,” says Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald, “a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests—a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes.”

At all the decision points subsequent to arrest, the outcomes are virtually identical for blacks and whites alike—and the slight differences that do exist tend to favor blacks.[2]  In studies that consider all relevant variables—such as the defendant’s prior criminal record, the severity of the crime in question, the offender’s demeanor with police, whether a weapon was used, and whether the crime in question was victim-precipitated—no differences have been found in sentencing patterns, either in relation to the victim’s race or the offender’s race.[3]

In 1983, the liberal-leaning National Academy of Sciences found “no evidence of a widespread systematic pattern of discrimination in sentencing.”[4]  In 1985, the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology concluded that a disproportionate number of blacks were in prison not because of a double standard of justice, but because of the disproportionate number of crimes they committed.[5]  That same year, federal government statistician Patrick Langan conducted an exhaustive study of black and white incarceration rates and found that “even if racism [in sentencing] exists, it might help explain only a small part of the gap between the 11 percent black representation in the United States adult population and the now nearly 50 percent black representation among persons entering state prisons each year in the United States.”[6]  In a 1987 review essay of the three most comprehensive books examining the role of race in the American criminal-justice system, the journal Criminology concluded that there was little evidence of anti-black discrimination.[7]  A 1991 Rand Corporation study found that a defendant’s racial or ethnic group affiliation bore little or no relationship to conviction rates; far more important than race were such factors as the amount of evidence against the defendant, and whether or not a credible eyewitness testified.[8]  This same study found almost no relation between a defendant’s race or ethnicity and his or her likelihood of receiving a severe sentence.[9]  A 1993 study by the National Academy of Sciences agreed that race had a negligible effect on sentencing.[10]  Also in 1993, a study of federal sentencing guidelines found no evidence of racially disparate punishments for perpetrators of similar offenses. The seriousness of the crime, the offender’s prior criminal record, and whether weapons were used accounted for all the observed interracial variations of prison sentences.[11]

In 1995, Patrick Langan analyzed data on 42,500 defendants in America’s 75 largest counties and found “no evidence that in the places where blacks in the United States have most of their contacts with the justice system, that system treats them more harshly than whites.”[12]  A 1996 analysis of 55,000 big-city felony cases found that black defendants were convicted at a lower rate than whites in 12 of the 14 federally designated felony categories.[13]  This finding is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of other recent studies, most of which indicate that black defendants are slightly less likely to be convicted of criminal charges against them that white defendants.[14]  Liberal criminologist Michael Tonry wrote in his 1996 book Malign Neglect: “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.” The following year, liberal criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen concurred that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, accounted for the fact that blacks were likelier than whites to be in prison and serving longer terms. [15]

In short, notwithstanding Barack Obama's professed concerns about "discrimination" in the justice system, it is entirely demonstrable that even two and three decades ago charges of racial inequities were largely chimeras without basis in objective reality. Nothing in the criminal-justice literature of the past decade indicates that anything has changed in that regard. 

As noted above, president-elect Obama has complained that the penalties for possession of crack cocaine, a drug most often used by poor blacks, are much harsher than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine, whose users are typically affluent whites. The implication is that the imposition of harsh anti-crack penalties was rooted, at least initially, in racism. But the Congressional Record shows that such was not at all the case. In 1986, when the strict, federal anti-crack legislation was being debated, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—deeply concerned about the degree to which crack was decimating black communities—strongly supported the legislation and actually pressed for even harsher penalties. In fact, a few years earlier CBC members had pushed President Reagan to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy.[16]

Incidentally, Obama fails to mention that the vast majority of cocaine arrests in the U.S. are made at the state—not the federal—level, where sentencing disparities between cases involving crack and powder cocaine generally do not exist; indeed, only 13 states punish crack convictions more harshly than powder convictions, and the differentials are much smaller than those on the federal level. Furthermore, drug possession accounts for fewer than 2 percent of all offenses that propel individuals into federal prisons. Those most likely to be incarcerated for drug convictions are not mere users, but traffickers who are largely career criminals with very long rap sheets.[17]

Moreover, it is reasonable to wonder why Obama feels compelled to speak out about alleged inequities vis à vis federal cocaine penalties (which he says discriminate against blacks), but is silent on the matter of federal methamphetamine-trafficking penalties—which, it could easily be argued, discriminate heavily against whites. Heather MacDonald explains:
The press almost never mentions the federal methamphetamine-trafficking penalties, which are identical to those for crack: five grams of meth net you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence. In 2006, the 5,391 sentenced federal meth defendants (nearly as many as the [5,619] crack defendants) were 54 percent white, 39 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black. But no one calls the federal meth laws anti-Hispanic or anti-white.
In the final analysis, Barack Obama’s assertions about inequities in the justice system ring absolutely hollow today, just as they have rung hollow for at least a quarter-century. To be sure, it is possible that the president-elect is ignorant of the facts presented herein and, as such, is simply parroting the misinformation to which he has been exposed. Another possibility is that Obama is entirely aware of the actual facts but has elected instead to play the time-honored political game of fabricating pernicious “injustices” that allegedly plague an entire demographic of “victims”—and then positioning himself as the hero who will save the day. Neither of those two scenarios casts the president-elect in a dignified light.


[1] David Tuller, “Prison Term Study Finds No Race Link,” San Francisco Chronicle (February 16, 1990), p. 2.
[2] Walter Olson, “Is It Really an Injustice System?” New York Post (September 30, 1996), p. 21.  William Wilbanks, The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1987), p. 6.  Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism (New York: Free Press, 1995), p. 283.
[3] William Wilbanks, The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, pp. 6, 89.
[4] William Wilbanks, “Color Blind,” National Review (April 26, 1993), pp. 52-53.
[5] Ibid.
[6] John Dilulio, Jr., “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours,” City Journal (Spring 1996), p. 19.
[7] William Wilbanks, “Color Blind,” National Review (April 26, 1993), pp. 52-53.
[8] Charles H. Logan and John J. DiIulio, Jr., “Ten Deadly Myths About Crime and Punishment in the U.S.”  See Robert James Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1994), p. 165.
[9] John DiIulio, Jr., “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours,” City Journal (Spring 1996), p. 19.   Charles H. Logan and John J. Dilulio, Jr., “Ten Deadly Myths About Crime and Punishment in the U.S.”  See Robert James Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice, p. 165.
[10] John DiIulio, Jr., “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours,” City Journal (Spring 1996), p. 19.
[11] Ibid., pp. 18-19.
[12] Ibid., p. 19.
[13] Walter Olson, “Is It Really an Injustice System?” New York Post (September 30, 1996), p. 21.
William Wilbanks, The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, p. 98.
[15] John DiIulio, Jr., “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours,” City Journal (Spring 1996), pp. 19-20.
[16] Ibid.

John Perazzo is the Managing Editor of DiscoverTheNetworks and is the author of The Myths That Divide Us: How Lies Have Poisoned American Race Relations. For more information on his book, click here. E-mail him at WorldStudiesBooks@gmail.com

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