Anyone who has experienced what America’s ghettos are actually like will know that popular depictions of cops as racist oppressors are distortions and caricatures. These myths and the statistics that belie them are worth exploring in some detail
Are black people in the United States disproportionately subject to excessive force, including killings, by the police? American liberals certainly think so, and have repeatedly used the slogan, “Black lives matter.” On October 22 last year President Barack Obama said:
I think the reason the organisers use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not because they are suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting is that there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that is not happening in other communities … The African American community is not just making this up.
But he also added, with greater wisdom, that those who make this claim should “back it up with data, not anecdote”.
Support for this contention has been fanned by two recent incidents in the United States in which unarmed black men were allegedly killed at the hands of the local police. Both incidents led to demonstrations and violence throughout America and to enormous media publicity around the world. The first occurred in Ferguson, Missouri (a suburb of St Louis), on August 9, 2014, when eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. The second took place on April 12, 2015, in west Baltimore, Maryland, where a twenty-five-year-old black man, Freddy Gray, was arrested for possessing an illegal switchblade; while being transported to the local police station, he fell into a coma in the back of a police van and died. Both incidents and their consequences were widely reported in the Australian media, generally as open-and-shut examples of police brutality and racism, with little or nothing in the way of balance or nuance.
Anyone who has studied these events, or who has real experience of what the black slum areas of America’s cities are actually like, will know that the popular depictions of these events are distortions and caricatures. They are worth exploring in some detail, as are the realities of race and crime in the United States which lie behind them.
Ferguson, Missouri, a largely depressed suburb of St Louis, has a population of 21,000. In 1970 it was 99 per cent white; today it is 67 per cent black. In 1900 St Louis was the fourth-largest city in America, but its population has declined from 857,000 in 1950 to only 317,000 today, and it is now fifty-eighth.
Shortly before he was shot dead, and accompanied by a friend, Michael Brown robbed a local convenience store, grabbing and repeatedly threatening the store clerk. He then stole several packages of cigarillos (often used to wrap marijuana). Officer Darren Wilson had received word of the robbery and attempted to arrest the two men. Brown was six feet four inches (1.93 metres) tall and weighed 210 pounds (95 kilos). He was indeed unarmed, but was actively engaged in rectifying this deficiency, attempting to grab Wilson’s gun through the window of his police car (his DNA was found on the gun and inside the police car). The two robbers fled, with Wilson in pursuit. Brown stopped, turned towards Wilson and moved towards him. Wilson then shot him twelve times, the last shot being fatal.
A Grand Jury, appointed in the wake of the killing and subsequent rioting, deliberated for twenty-five days and completely exonerated Wilson. Many eyewitnesses, most of them local blacks, fully backed up Wilson’s account of the shooting. Nevertheless, almost immediately after the killing, hundreds of protesters gathered to throw bottles at the police, followed by the widespread looting of local shops and violent clashes with the police. These attracted worldwide publicity. Amnesty International sent a thirteen-strong contingent of human rights activists to monitor the local scene. (Amnesty is the body which has issued more reports critical of human rights violations in South Korea than in North Korea.) At the behest of the Obama administration, forty FBI agents were sent to interview potential witnesses; in addition, Obama’s Attorney-General sent his own set of lawyers to investigate further. Again, these investigations completely exonerated Wilson.
This essay appears in the July-August edition of Quadrant, now on sale
The second incident to become internationally known concerned Freddy Gray, a resident of the Sandtown-Winchester black ghetto (99 per cent African-American) area of west Baltimore, specifically of the truly appalling Gilmor Homes, a sink public housing project, almost certainly totally black, whose awfulness can be viewed on YouTube. Although still in his mid-twenties, Gray was already a career criminal. He had been arrested twenty-four times; five of these charges were still pending when he died; at the time, he was due in court on a drugs charge two weeks later. In February 2009 Gray was sentenced to four years in jail for drug possession. He was paroled in 2011 and then rearrested for violating parole. In 2013 he was returned to prison for a month. A heroin addict, on April 12, 2015, Gray was arrested for possessing an illegal switchblade. In the course of his arrest, when being taken to a police station in a police van, he fell into a coma and died. Gray’s death led to widespread looting and rioting in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The racial situation in Baltimore should be explained. Of the city’s 622,000 residents 64 per cent are black, as have been four of its five most recent mayors, at least seven of the fourteen members of its City Council, most of its recent Police Commissioners, and 43 per cent of its police officers. Six police officers were involved in Gray’s arrest, of whom three were black (one a black woman). These facts notwithstanding, Baltimore’s Attorney-General, a black woman, filed charges against the six police officers, an act which the prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz said was done “in an effort to satisfy protesters and prevent further arrests”. Baltimore’s mayor, another black woman, then sacked the city’s Police Commissioner, a black man, and replaced him with a white man.
In Australia, both of these affairs were widely reported in the local media, invariably in terms of the brutal police gratuitously killing unarmed black men. This total lack of balance and disconnect from reality were not only to be found among the organs of the Left like the ABC—where police-bashing is automatic, especially when white American policemen are involved—but also on the commercial stations. As a result, it is safe to say, most Australians are convinced that the fascistic police in the United States have an obsession with arresting and molesting innocent black men, disciples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their martyred pacifism.
How accurate is this impression? Readers can draw their own conclusions from the following table of arrests by race in the United States in 2012 (the most recent year for which statistics exist), from an official report by the US Department of Justice:
Among all arrests in the United States in 2012, 69 per cent were of whites, 28 per cent of blacks. The black arrest rate was more than twice their percentage in the population as a whole—reflecting proven differences in crime rates between the races in the United States—but claims that the racist police homed in on innocent blacks while ignoring white criminals is patently untrue: the vast majority of arrests in the United States were of white men and women.
Black Americans have made genuine political and socio-economic gains since the 1960s. There is a black American President. There are high-profile blacks in many elite positions. In 2013, 19 per cent of blacks over twenty-five had received a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. This is lower than the white percentage (33 per cent), but is vastly higher than decades ago.
Yet in many respects for American blacks at the bottom of the barrel little has changed and the situation may indeed be worse. Attributing this to embedded white racism is highly misleading, given the number of upwardly mobile blacks, but is largely due to the nature of African-American society itself, especially in America’s urban ghettos. For instance, in 1970, 38 per cent of black births in America were to unmarried mothers; by 2011 this figure had risen to an extraordinary 72 per cent of all black births. (The white rate had increased as well, to 36 per cent.) The overwhelming majority of black births in American urban ghettos are to unmarried mothers, often with multiple casual partners, often strongly associated with permanent unemployment, violent crime, drugs and never-ending violence.
In fact, and despite a national decline in the crime rate during the past ten or fifteen years, America’s urban ghettos remain as violent as ever. Australians, who know these places only from the sanitised depictions on television—where blacks are almost invariably depicted as innocent victims—can have little idea of the sheer hellishness of these places, or of the categorical difference between crime rates in Australia and in America’s black ghettos. Confronted by the endless procession of bashings, robberies, drug and bikie gangs, paedophiles and fraudsters night after night on the local news, anyone here would conclude that Australia is a violent cesspit of crime. The actual statistics do not bear this out. In Victoria, for example, there were eighty-four murders in 2013, in a population of 5.8 million, a rate of 1.4 per 100,000. This is, broadly, about the “normal” homicide rate in most Western countries. But in some American cities the murder rate per 100,000 of population is as follows:
St Louis 50
New Orleans 40
Newark, New Jersey 40
Birmingham, Alabama 30
Oakland, California 22
Some smaller American cities have even higher murder rates: East St Louis, Missouri (near Ferguson) topped the list with a rate of 86 per 100,000. Moreover, there are, of course, safe neighbourhoods—at least by American standards—in all of these cities, almost invariably white, middle-class areas. The rates of violent crime, including murders, are even higher in the black areas of these and other American cities than these statistics suggest, appalling as they are.
As is obvious from the data—obfuscated as this is by the liberal media and by television and movie depictions—there is a close correlation between the percentage of blacks in an American urban neighbourhood and the rates of violent crime. To take one example: among Chicago’s seventy-seven neighbourhoods designated in official statistics, the five neighbourhoods with the highest rates of violent crime are as follows, with the racial breakdown of each in the 2010 census:
Fuller Park (92 per cent black; 2 per cent white)
West Garfield Park (96 per cent; 0.7 per cent)
Washington Park (97 per cent; 0.7 per cent)
Greater Grand Crossing (97 per cent; 0.6 per cent)
Englewood (97 per cent; 0.3 per cent).
Englewood, a notoriously violent black area on Chicago’s South Side, has been the subject of many newspaper reports and studies. In one local television news account of the place from August 2013 (and published online), a white reporter who visited the place (for the first time) noted:
In the past twelve hours, we witnessed more trouble than most will see in their lifetime … In the past three months, there have been more than 500 violent incidents, about a dozen murders, and even more shootings.
Gunshots rang out as he spoke. In the first nine months of 2015, Englewood saw twenty-four murders and 240 persons seriously wounded. In 2014 Chicago (population 2.7 million) had 434 murders. Among homicides where there was an arrest (the minority), 76 per cent were committed by blacks, 3 per cent by whites. Englewood’s population is about 30,000. An Australian suburb or neighbourhood with an equivalent population would be unlikely to have had twenty-four murders in the past twenty years. Indeed, and apart from anomalies like Kings Cross on Saturday nights, it is improbable that there is a single urban neighbourhood in Australia which would be regarded as unsafe in the sense that hundreds of urban areas in America are unsafe. In September 2015 alone, there were fifty-nine murders in Chicago, nearly all of young black men killed by other young black men.
The fact that America’s urban black neighbourhoods are literally synonymous with violent crime is surely the major cause of “white flight”, the virtual abandonment of these areas by the white population that had previously formed its majority. Most mainstream (that is, predominantly liberal) accounts of residential segregation in America attribute it to practices such as “redlining” (denying housing loans to blacks). True, these practices have occurred, but they cannot explain why whites leave in droves. And leave they do, virtually ending the white presence in these areas, as the Chicago statistics above show.
There also appears to be a general rule that the more politically liberal the previous white community, the more rapidly they exit when the blacks move in. An interesting example occurred in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, formerly the archetypal neighbourhood of second-generation white immigrants, depicted in many films. Formerly composed of Jews and Irish and Italian Catholics, it is safe to say that 85 per cent of its former inhabitants were political liberals who consistently voted Democratic in presidential elections from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. Around 1970 blacks started to move to Flatbush in significant numbers. By around 1975 Flatbush had become a black (African-American, Haitian and Dominican) ghetto. Probably to a man and woman, the whites who left supported the black civil rights movement in the South, and would have been shocked to be labelled racist. What drove them out was, simply, the astronomical black crime rate, along with the catastrophic deterioration of educational standards in the local state schools.
As a result of “white flight”, in virtually every city in America with a significant black population, state schools in American cities are virtually as racially segregated as they were in the Deep South during the era of Jim Crow. In Baltimore, for instance, while 30 per cent of the city’s population (that is, excluding its suburbs beyond the city’s boundaries) is white, only 7 per cent of the students in the city’s school system are white. The “missing” whites attend expensive private schools, almost purely in order to avoid the appalling conditions in the local state schools. The local high school for the Gilmor Homes, where Freddy Gray lived, is 100 per cent black. Nearly all of the other state schools in Baltimore (and elsewhere) have similar statistics, often despite heroic efforts to make them more attractive. For instance, Dunbar High School in east Baltimore has a close association in its science courses with the world-famous Johns Hopkins Medical School nearby, generally regarded as the best medical school in America. One might suppose that this would lure significant numbers of white students. At the present time, however, 97 per cent of Dunbar High’s students are black, 1 per cent are Hispanics, and 1.4 per cent are white.
Certainly the main group to suffer from America’s crime-derived de facto segregation are America’s blacks. The vast majority of blacks murdered and mugged in the United States are the victims of other blacks. According to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, 93 per cent of black murder victims are killed by other blacks, a figure supported by official statistics. Despite the general decline in crime in America since the 1990s, these trends have not changed in any way. In Chicago, which keeps careful records, among the first 377 (!) murder victims in the city last year, 79 per cent were blacks, generally young black men killed by other young black men, 17 per cent were Hispanics, and only 4 per cent were white or Asian. Only five of these killings were by the Chicago police.
These realities face America’s urban police forces every day. They are perpetually dealing with a component of the local population, the majority in many cities, that is endemically and incorrigibly violent and murderous. (And not only in America. In London, 54 per cent of street crime, 59 per cent of robberies, and 67 per cent of gun crimes are committed by Afro-Caribbeans.) On average, sixty-four police officers are killed each year in the line of duty in the United States, a fact which must not be forgotten in considering the Ferguson and Baltimore cases. American police officers literally take their lives in their hands every minute that they are on duty.
It is very difficult to see how the situation can be ameliorated. Most observers will certainly point to America’s insane gun laws: the American Constitution protects “the right to bear arms”, a right which the powerful gun lobby zealously guards. Unlike the situation here after the Port Arthur massacre, it would almost certainly be legally impossible for guns to be generally confiscated and heavily restricted in America. On the other hand, it should be remembered that whites and Asians have precisely the same right to bear arms as blacks, but the rate of violent gun crime committed by whites and Asians—recent mass murders by psychopaths notwithstanding—is a tiny fraction of the rate among blacks. After the First World War, British veterans retained thousands of service revolvers, but Britain’s homicide rate remained microscopically low, with gun killings almost unknown.
Obviously unemployment, which is extremely high in urban ghettos, plays a major part in fomenting violence. But the connection is not as clear as one might imagine: American crime rates did not rise after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, but continued to fall; they have risen during the past year or so, despite unemployment declining to much lower levels. America appears to have a chronic problem with no obvious solution.
William D. Rubinstein taught at Deakin University and at the University of Wales.