In 2002, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a book chapter summing up a lifetime of studying the vexed issue of crime and race:
A central problem—perhaps the central problem—in improving the relationship between white and black Americans is the difference in racial crime rates. No matter how innocent or guilty a stranger may be, he carries with him in public the burdens or benefits of his group identity…
Estimating the crime rates of racial groups is, of course, difficult because we only know the arrest rate. If police are more (or less) likely to arrest a criminal of a given race, the arrest rate will overstate (or understate) the true crime rate. To examine this problem, researchers have compared the rate at which criminal victims report (in the National Crime Victimization Survey, or NCVS) the racial identity of whoever robbed or assaulted them with the rate at which the police arrest robbers or assaulters of different races. Regardless of whether the victim is black or white, there are no significant differences between victim reports and police arrests. This suggests that, though racism may exist in policing (as in all other aspects of American life), racism cannot explain the overall black arrest rate. The arrest rate, thus, is a reasonably good proxy for the crime rate.
Black men commit murders at a rate about eight times greater than that for white men. This disparity is not new; it has existed for well over a century. When historian Roger Lane studied murder rates in Philadelphia, he found that since 1839 the black rate has been much higher than the white rate. This gap existed long before the invention of television, the wide distribution of hand guns, or access to dangerous drugs (except for alcohol).
America is a violent nation. The estimated homicide rate in this country, excluding all those committed by blacks, is over three times higher than the homicide rate for the other six major industrial nations. But whatever causes white Americans to kill other people, it causes black Americans to kill others at a much higher rate.
Of course the average African American male is not likely to kill anybody.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, fewer than one out of every 2,000 black men would kill a person in any year, and most of their victims were other blacks.
Though for young black men homicide is the leading cause of death, the chances of the average white person’s being killed by a black are very small. But the chances of being hit by lightning are also very small, and yet we leave high ground during a thunderstorm. However low the absolute risk, the relative risk—relative, that is, to the chances of being killed by a white—is high, and this fact changes everything.
When whites walk down the street, they are more nervous when they encounter a black man than when they encounter a white one. When blacks walk down the street, they are more likely than whites to be stopped and questioned by a police officer…
The differences in the racial rates for property crimes, though smaller than those for violent offenses, are still substantial. The estimated rate at which black men commit burglary is three times higher than it is for white men; for rape, it is five times higher. The difference between blacks and whites with respect to crime, and especially violent crime, has, I think, done more to impede racial amity than any other factor. Pure racism—that is, a visceral dislike of another person because of his skin color—has always existed. It is less common today than it once was, but it persists and no doubt explains part of our racial standoff. But pure racism once stigmatized other racial minorities who have today largely overcome that burden. When I grew up in California, the Chinese and Japanese were not only physically distinctive, but they were also viewed with deep suspicion by whites.
For many decades, Chinese testimony was not accepted in California courts, an Alien Land Law discouraged Asian land purchases, the Chinese Exclusion Act (not repealed until 1943) prevented Chinese immigration, and a Gentlemen’s Agreement, signed in 1907, required Japan to cut back sharply on passports issued to Japanese who wished to emigrate to California. When World War II began, the Japanese were sent to relocation camps at great personal cost to them.
Yet today Californians of Asian ancestry are viewed by Caucasians with comfort and even pride. In spite of their distinctive physical features, no one crosses the street to avoid a Chinese or Japanese youth. One obvious reason is that they have remarkably low crime rates.
The black murder rate, though it is much higher than the rate for whites or Asians, does not always change in the same way as the white rate. Between 1976 and 1991, the murder arrest rate for black males aged twenty-five and older fell dramatically even though the murder arrest rate for the nation as a whole did not change at all. Apparently, adult black men were becoming less violent.
But then crack came along in the late 1980s:
But in some years, such as 1965 to the early 1970s, the black murder rate increased much faster than the white rate. By the late 1960s the black rate was over eighteen times higher than the white one. Then, beginning around 1975, the black rate declined while the white rate continued to increase, so that the ratio of black arrests to white arrests fell to around six to one. From 1980 until the present, the rate at which adult blacks and whites are arrested for murder dropped more or less steadily. By contrast, the rate at which black and white juveniles are arrested for murder increased sharply from 1985 to the early 1990s, with the white rate almost doubling and the black rate more than tripling. Starting in the mid- 1990s, the juvenile rate fell again, almost down to the level it was at in 1985.
In short, though the gap sometimes widens and sometimes narrows, white and black homicide rates tend to remain different. …
We can do one thing: adopt rules that constrain police freedom to stop and question people based on race alone. We can hope for another: the slow reduction in black crime rates. Doing the first is relatively easy, but it will have little effect. Achieving the second is harder and will take much longer, but it will have a large effect. For the foreseeable future, we must accept small changes with little results and hope for large changes with greater ones.