The question of who commits more crime Whites or Blacks is a recurring theme in internet discussions. It often pre-populates a search question that starts with “who commits more crime” with “race” or “black or white” as likely search subjects.
If you think the answer is simple then prepare for a surprise. This is also a good lesson on the limitations of statistics, or the danger they pose in the hands of a lazy writer, a person of willful ignorance, or the generally unaware.
Two U.S. agencies keep records of crime: the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. These two agencies keep different kinds of records. The FBI receives and reports a wealth of statistics having to do with who is arrested in the course of a year, where they are arrested (state, large city, small town), and what charge led to the arrest. (Here are the racial arrest reports for 2011, 2012, and 2013.) The DOJ tracks victimization. How many people reported crime, where are they from, what is their gender, age, and race, and what the crime was. There are multiple tables and charts on each site. (The National Center for the Victims of Crime provides a 31 page analysis of one year’s DOJ victimization report but says it cannot “comprehensively cover all cases of these crimes, or all possible variables.”)
Here are a few things to keep in mind about these stats and the question “Who commits the most crime?”These two sets of data are not directly related. The DOJ stats do not correlate to the FBI stats. In other words, the arrest statistics are not satisfied by the reporting statistics and vice versa.
The FBI data only includes arrests. It does not record how the cases are disposed. In many cases charges are dropped. This fact is not reflected. I do not know whether charges that are changed to lesser serious offenses are moved from one category to the other.
An email response to me from the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division confirmed, “Conviction data is not collected by the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. [T]he program does not track what happens to the arrestees after the arrests have been reported.”
In light of this, it is necessary to remember that arrest does not equal guilt. Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time and are misidentified. Some people are with the wrong people at the wrong time and get lied about. Some people are the wrong color at the wrong time and get arrested because of it.
Not all crimes are reported. Reporting of crime statistics is voluntary from local and state agencies, although the vast majority of the US population is represented (97.4% in 2010). Any under or lack of reporting will affect the crime data to a small degree. In addition, the DOJ records are limited by underreporting of victims to law enforcement agencies. (Although, they do provide estimates on the underreporting.)
Not all racial data is reported, and what is reported cannot be guaranteed to be accurate. Just like crime data is voluntary, racial and ethnic data is subjective. A report that reads “Black” could have referred to a Cuban. An identification as “Asian” could be a suspect from Somoa. Biases and ignorance do have a role in the reporting process.
Limitations of the reporting
It really isn’t possible to determine who commits the most crime from the FBI stats, only who is arrested for suspicion of committing a crime. This is a huge problem. People look at the raw numbers and conclude White do X, or Blacks to Y, or Blacks murder more, and the like.
But, the FBI database only shows us the rate of arrest among the various races in the US.
Consider the following:
The FBI tracks crime in 30 categories (plus/minus) ranging from murder to drug abuse to prostitution to offenses against the family and children to rape to vandalism and suspicion. (Suspicion of what isn’t clear.)
The total number of arrests in the US in 2013 (the last year tabulated) was 9,014,635, of which 6,214,197 were Whites (which includes Hispanics), 2,549,655 were Blacks and African Americans, while American Indian/Alaska Natives, Asians and Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders account for the rest (just under 3% of all arrests).
The percentage of all arrests for the same year was 68.9% Whites and 28.3% Black or African American. The percentage of the US population for 2013 was broken down as follows: 316,497,531 total, with 77.7% of those being White, and 13.2% being Black.
In the 2013 FBI statistics on arrest by race, we find two categories where Black are arrested more often than Whites: Murder and non negligent manslaughter, and robbery.
That’s it. In every other category including rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, violent and property crime, forgery, fraud, etc, more Whites are arrested. In some categories like sex offenses, DUIs, liquor law violations and drunkenness Whites are arrested at a greater rate than our percentage of the population.
This is where the misinformation happens. Some people see these numbers and say, “Look! Blacks commit more crime that Whites!” Or, in some cases, “Blacks commit a higher percentage of the crimes compared to the population as a whole!” Neither of these are necessarily true because the stats are for arrests not convictions! All we can say for sure from these stats is that Blacks are arrested at a higher rate, not overall, but as a percentage of the population.
A plausible reason the greater arrest rate among blacks are “stop and frisk” practices, and sweeps the lead to arrests of Black people on trumped up (or bogus) charges. Additionally in some predominantly Black, poor areas-like St. Louis County, MO-the legal system has been used as a means of funding city budgets.
Y’know, arrest people, fine them, and pay the mayor’s salary.
The Sentencing Project has provided strong evidence that Blacks are arrested more frequently that Whites for the same offenses, and sentenced more harshly than Whites when convicted for the same crimes. So it’s inaccurate to make definitive statements like “Blacks commit more crimes that Whites” from FBI or DOJ stats when the evidence does not support the claim.
Check out the books below to learn more about crime in the United States: