There is a common conservative narrative that indicates the disproportionate incarceration of black people is not the result of systemic racism, but rather of shortcomings within the black community.
It is also common to hear the supposedly neutral statement that "black people commit more crimes than white people." This "fact" is used to justify a belief that black people have a natural criminal propensity, or that a "culture of violence" is to blame for problems faced by black people in America.
Black people make up roughly 13% of the United States population, and white people make up 64%. Black people make up 40% of the prison population, and white people 39%. Therefore, even though there are roughly five times as many white people as black people in this country, blacks and whites are incarcerated in equal numbers. But the fact that black people are incarcerated five times as frequently as white people does not mean black people commit five times as many crimes. Here's why:
(1) If a black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person is more likely to be arrested. This is due in part to the fact that black people are more heavily policed.
Black people, more often than white people, live in dense urban areas. Dense urban areas are more heavily policed than suburban or rural areas. When people live in close proximity to one another, police can monitor more people more often. In more heavily policed areas, people committing crimes are caught more frequently. This could help explain why, for example, black people and white people smoke marijuana at similar rates, yet black people are 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. (The discrepancy could also be driven by overt racism, more frequent illegal searches of black people, or an increased willingness to let non-blacks off with a warning.)
(2) When black people are arrested for a crime, they are convicted more often than white people arrested for the same crime.
An arrest and charge does not always lead to a conviction. A charge may be dismissed or a defendant may be declared not guilty at trial. Whether or not an arrestee is convicted is often determined by whether or not a defendant can afford a reputable attorney. The interaction of poverty and trial outcomes could help explain why, for example, while black defendants represent about 35% of drug arrests, 46% of those convicted of drug crimes are black. (This discrepancy could also be due to racial bias on the part of judges and jurors.)
(3) When black people are convicted of a crime, they are more likely to be sentenced to incarceration compared to whites convicted of the same crime.
When a person is convicted of a crime, a judge often has discretion in determining whether the defendant will be incarcerated or given a less severe punishment such as probation, community service, or fines. One study found that in a particular region blacks were incarcerated for convicted felony offenses 51% of the time while whites convicted of felonies were incarcerated 38% of the time. The same study also used an empirical approach to determine that race, not confounded with any other factor, was a key determinant in judges' decisions to incarcerate.
Racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice process build upon one another. So, if 1,000 white people and 200 black people (a ratio of 5:1 to reflect the U.S. population) commit the same crime, here is what the eventual prison population could look like:
100 white people and 74 black people might be arrested.
It is impossible to determine what percentage of crimes committed result in arrests because there can be no data on un-observed crimes. As noted above, however, it has been found that while black and white Americans smoke marijuana at similar rates, blacks are arrested 3.7 times as frequently for marijuana possession. These numbers were picked to reflect the 3.7:1 ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession. 100 is 10% of 1,000 and 74 is 37% of 200, so these numbers would represent an arrest disparity equivalent to that noted in the example above.
50 white people and 48 black people might be convicted.
If black people account for 35% of drug arrests and 46% of convictions, this indicates a conviction rate that is approximately 1.3 times higher than it should be based on the black arrest rate. So, if 50% of white arrestees were convicted we would expect to see 65% (.5 x 1.3) of black arrestees convicted: 50 is 50% of 100 and 48 is about 65% of 74. (50% was picked at random; the important factor here is the comparative proportion.)
19 white people and 24 black people might be sentenced to prison.
Using the example felony incarceration rates cited above, we might expect to see 38% of the 50 convicted white defendants (19) and 51% of the 48 convicted black defendants (24) incarcerated for their crimes. In this scenario, 12% of black people who commit a crime and less than 2% of white people who commit the same crime might eventually go to prison.
This example demonstrates that there are systemic differences in how blacks and whites are treated by the law. These differences, which are compounded in each successive phase of the criminal justice process, increase the percentage of black people incarcerated for committing a particular crime.
This example is NOT meant to be a conclusive analysis explaining the incarceration gap. The statistics presented above and applied to the illustrative example come from different contexts and refer to different crimes. Racial disparities in the application of criminal justice are not the only source of differential incarceration rates. Poverty, geography, and lacking educational and career opportunities all likely play a role. These factors exacerbate the effects of systemic racism and feed the cycle of incarceration, joblessness, and poverty that plagues some segments of the black population.
Regardless of the exact factors behind the incarceration gap, it is not some neutral, statistical fact that black people commit more crime. The gap is the result of numerous interacting factors, not the least of which is racism. Explanations of the incarceration gap as a result of black criminal propensity or insular cultural deficiencies are critically flawed, and by definition racist.