My column today is not a specific critique of an article in the Boston Globe, it is a rebuttal of their narrative espoused by many Democratic Party leaders that our criminal justice system is racist. I find this offensive and I want to give an example of why their reasoning is wrong.
First, a little background. I have been watching the confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. She’s been doing a fine job, by the way, simply unflappable. The Democrats, as usual, are speaking with one voice in opposition. Some are abrasive, others seem genuinely interested in having a dialogue with Barrett, but these are just two routes to the same goal, to vote against her nomination.
But civility is more pleasant than rancor, and one of the civil questioners was former Rhodes scholar and presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker. Booker recited lots of statistics on racial disparities in arrests and sentences for Black suspects or criminals and tried to get Barrett to slip up. I think he wanted her to admit some expertise in this hot-button issue, then perhaps personally accuse her of racism somehow. I give no benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Left’s tactics.
But the statistics quoted by Booker were disturbing to me as a viewer. We know about sentencing disparity in crack versus powder cocaine, and that doesn’t seem fair, and I think that has been addressed. But based on Booker’s litany of wrongs, there must be many instances of “systemic racism” that Booker could show, and he listed several recent books that explore this issue, which people can read to “educate” themselves.
I’m not sure educate is the right word, however. It might be indoctrinate.
When you have disparate outcomes, say Black suspects getting charged with more serious offenses than White suspects, does that indicate “systemic racism”? Booker would say yes, because he attributes racism as the cause for the disparity. But I don’t think that link has been proven. Instead, it has been assumed that you simply can’t have all these statistical anomalies without some underlying cause, and “systemic racism” is one such cause that might make them all happen. But I believe there are others, and I am going to give an example by analogy to prove my point.
THE SPEEDING TICKET ANALOGY
No one likes to get a speeding ticket, but most of us who drive, speed at one time or another. I have gotten my share of tickets over my 40-year driving history, and have also gotten some written and verbal warnings.
I have been told that years ago, one could contest a speeding ticket in court by arguing that the road was dry, the sky was clear, there was no other traffic, and traveling above the posted limit was reasonable and safe under those conditions. I could have used that defense for my first ticket in a speed trap on Route 84 in Sturbridge, back when the posted speed limit on the highway was 55. The road was built for at least 65 and many drivers would exceed that speed, but I was nabbed and paid my fine.
It is hard to disagree with the radar gun, especially when it agrees with your speedometer. So let’s assume that speeding tickets are given to people who are generally guilty of speeding and the government has a good purpose in giving out tickets, to lower the speeds on roads when driving at higher speeds would result in more accidents and deaths.
We have heard from the Right that police officers (and supervisors at all levels) are not racist but there may be a few bad apples that can be weeded out through behavior, and I agree with this. On the Left, we have the view that officers are part of a “systemically racist” police force and justice system, despite the obvious participation in that system of minority officers. In other words, the system is so insidious that even Black officers are, in effect, racists, and Black police Commissioners are too. And the evidence used by Senator Booker is that if you look at outcomes, you see disparity at all levels. Racism is one theory that could explain such disparity. In other words, if you really had a racist system, it would most likely lead to unequal justice too.
But I believe you can have a system totally free of racism that could lead to such disparities, and I will be using an analogy to prove my point.
Bank robbers rob banks, because that’s where the money is, said famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Likewise, firefighters go to where there are fires. And police go to where there is crime.
Because of poverty, a lot of crime occurs in poor neighborhoods. Therefore, there will be a greater police presence in such neighborhoods. It makes sense, and it is wanted by the lawful residents of these areas. People want to live in safety and having visible and numerous police officers will likely deter many crimes from being committed and will lead to quicker arrests when crimes do occur. And when someone is in distress, you want the police to come as soon as possible. So without consulting statistics, let’s assume that poorer neighborhoods have more officers per capita and that more minorities live in poorer neighborhoods.
Police presence in such areas is thus not racist, it is practical and it is to support the law-abiding residents. They want police there to make their neighborhoods livable and (relatively) safe, compared to not having enough police. And studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of minorities support the police and do not want them “defunded” (which means their budget gets reduced. It could mean they are disbanded, but typically means that some funds are directed to other programs.)
And I will use the crime of exceeding the posted speed limit, and asking whether people who speed deserve to be stopped and given a ticket? I think we can agree that yes, we need to stop reckless speeders no matter where they speed or the color of their skin or their economic class.
In my analogy, it is more likely that speeders will be stopped in poor neighborhoods because there are more police there and they have a duty to uphold the law. If the officers are sitting in their cruiser and someone comes speeding by, they have some duty to turn on their lights and pull the driver over and issue a ticket.
Let’s assume that we could show that Black drivers get pulled over more than White drivers, and are given more tickets per capita based on the population of the two races in a society. Is that evidence of “systemic racism” or is it evidence of a greater number of police patrolling in areas where more minorities live?
One of the points I’d like to make is that there is no defense to the speeding ticket. If someone speeds and is caught, they should get a ticket to discourage this behavior. But if there are more officers in minority areas giving out more speeding tickets, that is going to disproportionally affect minorities. But the cause isn’t racism, it is good policing and that includes having more police in areas where minorities live.
Instead, it is an example of an unintended consequence. We don’t want to give Black drivers more speeding tickets than White drivers, but everyone wants more police in high-crime areas, and everyone agrees that speeders need to be pulled over and issued citations. An unfortunate byproduct of these reasonable policies is that residents in such communities are going to end up with more speeding tickets too. But in my example, it has nothing to do with racism.
One of the reasons I take offense at the “systemic racism” charge is that it seems to excuse the underlying behavior. In my analogy, we can agree that speeders should be cited. It doesn’t matter their race (or the race of the officer doing his job.) This is a colorblind enforcement of the rules. Yet it yields a disparate outcome that the Left argues proves it has a basis in racism. I hope this example shows just one way in which outcomes can be reasonably explained using hypotheses that do not include such a vile slander for our police officers or our system of justice.
The Left has advanced this notion that “disparate outcomes” are proof of underlying racism and I hope I have shown a very simple example where you can have disparate outcomes and not have underlying racism.
Allen Nitschelm is publisher of PublicEditorMA.com. He critiques the Boston Globe, mostly focusing on the bias in their news reporting. News articles are graded for bias, and the website has a listing of the average bias ratings for all reporters reviewed. See our website for more information and the four categories of articles we publish.
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