Zimmerman Trial Triggers Right-Wing Media Black Crime Rate Obsession

President Obama noted that analysis of the George Zimmerman trial has led to a misguided focus on black crime rates. Indeed, the right-wing media have repeatedly hyped black crime statistics in the wake of the trial, often without acknowledging factors contributing to the problem and perception of black men as criminals.

President Obama Discusses Perception Of Black Criminality As Factor In Zimmerman Trial Analysis

President Obama: Young Black Men Are Often “Painted With A Broad Brush” As Criminals. In a July 19 press conference, President Obama noted that high crime rates among young black men are influenced by “the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities” that “can be traced to a very difficult history” but that those factors are sometimes ignored by the focus on black crime rates:

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that's unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain. [CNN, 7/19/13]

As Obama Noted, Commentators Have Focused On Black Crime Rates Following Trial

NRO's Heather MacDonald: “If A Black Parent Wants To Radically Reduce His Son's Chance Of Getting Shot, He Should Live In A White Neighborhood.” In a National Review Online column, Heather MacDonald claimed that while Trayvon Martin's death was tragic, “people faced with blacks' actually elevated crime rate are going to view teens who fit the black-thug look with a greater degree of trepidation.” MacDonald then dismissed the idea that black parents need to protect their children from racial targeting by explaining that “if a black parent wants to radically reduce his son's chance of getting shot, he should live in a white neighborhood.” [National Review Online, 7/19/13]

Pat Buchanan: “Black America's Real Problem Isn't White Racism.” Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan claimed that the targeting of blacks by law enforcement through “stop-and-frisk”  tactics was justified because of black crime rates. He purported that neither white vigilantes nor cops were “black America's problem.” He asserted that “racism really resides” in the black community, using a comment from the former head of the New York taxicab union, that “99 percent of the people that are robbing, stealing, killing these drivers are blacks and Hispanics” to back up his claim. [Human Events, 7/19/13]

Ann Coulter Points To Crime Rates To Defend The “Generalized Fear Of Young Black Males.” In a July 17 column in Human Events, titled “To Avoid Looking Like A Criminal, Don't Commit A Crime,” Ann Coulter claimed that the “generalized fear of young black males” is justified because “a disproportionate number of criminals are young black males” [emphasis original]:

Instead of turning every story about a black person killed by a white person into an occasion to announce, “The simple fact is, America is a racist society,” liberals might, one time, ask the question: Why do you suppose there would be a generalized fear of young black males? What might that be based on?

Throw us a bone. It's because a disproportionate number of criminals are young black males. It just happens that when Lee Van Houten and George Zimmerman were mugged by two of them, they survived the encounter. [Human Events, 7/17/13]

Wash. Post's Cohen: Trayvon Martin Was “Understandably Suspected Because He Was Black.” In a July 15 op-ed, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that he could “understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize” referring to Martin's hoodie. He claimed that young black males “commit a disproportionate amount of crime” so they should be scrutinized more than normal by law enforcement. Cohen concluded:

There's no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy -- the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [The Washington Post7/15/13]

Fox's Bill O'Reilly: “I Don't Believe” That Blacks Are Unfairly Targeted By Justice System Because They Just Live In “High-Crime Districts.” After asking a guest about what he would change after Zimmerman verdict, Fox host Bill O'Reilly dismissed the fact that black men are being disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system because “high-crime districts” are to blame for the high incarceration rates among blacks. [Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor7/15/13, via Media Matters]

WSJ's Jason Riley Cites Professor Who Says Black Violence Is A “Historical Fact, Not Bigoted Imagination.” Writing about the Zimmerman verdict, The Wall Street Journal's Jason Riley blamed young black men for the “perception of black criminality” that plagues the black community.:

The left wants to blame these outcomes on racial animus and “the system,” but blacks have long been part of running that system. Black crime and incarceration rates spiked in the 1970s and '80s in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, under black mayors and black police chiefs. Some of the most violent cities in the U.S. today are run by blacks.


Did the perception of black criminality play a role in Martin's death? We may never know for certain, but we do know that those negative perceptions of young black men are rooted in hard data on who commits crimes. We also know that young black men will not change how they are perceived until they change how they behave.[The Wall Street Journal7/15/13]

Ted Nugent: “The Black Problem” Could Be Solved If Blacks Put “Heart And Soul Into Being Honest” And “Law-Abiding.” During an appearance on right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' radio show, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent claimed that African-Americans could “fix the black problem tonight,” if they would put their “heart and soul into being honest, law-abiding, [and] delivering excellence at every move in your life.” Nugent went on to say “racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late [19]60s” and by the 1970s, “nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American's dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.” [The Alex Jones Show7/16/13, via Media Matters]

Right-Wing Media's Focus On Crime Rates Ignores Crucial Context

Crime Rates Driven By Lack Of Economic Opportunity, Social Factors

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Lack Of Access To Economic Opportunity” A Contributing Factor Of Violence.  Kit Murphy McNally, former director of the Benedict Center in Milwaukee, explained that other factors played a role in violence among minorities, mainly drug use and lack of economic opportunity. She explained that “many of their crimes are tied to drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty or other social problems” and added that “lack of access to economic opportunity frustrated many low-income residents who turned to crime.” [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel5/28/11]

The Sentencing Project: Drug Policies Constitute The Single Most Significant Factor In Rise In Criminal Justice Populations. The Sentencing Project reported that drug policies that disproportionately target the black community constitute “the single most significant factor in the rise in criminal justice populations”:

Drug policies constitute the single most significant factor contributing to the rise in criminal justice populations in recent years, with the number of incarcerated drug offenders having risen by 510% from 1983 to 1993. The number of Black (non-Hispanic) women incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses increased more than eight-fold -- 828% -- from 1986 to 1991.

While African American arrest rates for violent crime - 45% of arrests nationally - are disproportionate to their share of the population, this proportion has not changed significantly for twenty years. For drug offenses, though, the African American proportion of arrests increased from 24% in 1980 to 39% in 1993, well above the African American proportion of drug users nationally.

African Americans and Hispanics constitute almost 90% of offenders sentenced to state prison for drug possession. The criminal justice control rates documented in this report should prove even more disturbing than those revealed five years ago. Combined with the potential impact of current social and criminal justice policies, they attest to the gravity of the crisis facing the African American community.

The current high rates of criminal justice control are also likely to worsen considerably over the next several years. In addition to the steady twenty-year increase in criminal justice populations, the impact of current “get tough” policies in particular suggests continuing increases in criminal justice control rates and increasing racially disparate impacts. [ The Sentencing Project, October 1995

NAACP Fact Sheet Shows A Variety Of Factors Contribute To Black Criminality. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided a list of contributing factors to black criminality in its “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”:

Contributing Factors

  • Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
  • “Get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
  • In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
  • “Three Strikes”/habitual offender policies
  • Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
  • 35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites. [NAACP, accessed 7/18/13]

Perception Of Black Criminality Does Not Reflect Reality

Journal Of Contemporary Criminal Justice: Public Estimates Of Black Criminality Surpass The Reality. Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice Dr. Kelly Welch found that black criminality is exaggerated due to media portrayals of young black men as criminal, racial hoaxes, and racial profiling by criminal justice officials:

But public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality. The media perpetuate ideas linking race with criminality, which have also been reinforced by political agendas. The temporary efficacy of using a racial hoax to mislead law enforcement and the public has capitalized on and strengthened views about race and crime.

All of these phenomena have served to solidify the stereotype of the young Black man as a criminal threat among the public in contemporary American society, which then fuels the practice of racial profiling by criminal justice officials. The prevalent typification of Blacks as criminals seems to justify law enforcement tactics that exploit race in criminal investigations. [Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, August 2007]

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Black Criminality Is More Than Myth; It Is Socially Engineered Prophecy.” The Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to Richard Cohen's article on black criminality and racial profiling by pointing out that Cohen's article willfully ignores the “root causes” of violence in the black community and only attributes it to black culture. He continued:

An capricious anti-intellectualism, a fanatical imbecility, a willful amnesia, an eternal sunshine upon our spotless minds, is white supremacy's gravest legacy. You would not know from reading Richard Cohen that the idea that blacks are more criminally prone, is older than the crime stats we cite, that it has been cited since America's founding to justify the very kinds of public safety measures Cohen now endorses. Black criminality is more than myth; it is socially engineered prophecy. If you believe a people to be inhuman, you confine them to inhuman quarters and inhuman labor, and subject them to inhuman policy. When they then behave inhumanely to each other, you take it is as proof of your original thesis. The game is rigged. Because it must be. [The Atlantic7/17/13]

Black Men Are Disproportionately Targeted By The Criminal Justice System

Huffington Post: Black Youth Arrest Rates Higher Than Whites, “Even Though Both Report Similar Rates” Of Crimes. The Huffington Post reported that black youth arrest rates for drug, assaults, and weapon offences “are higher than arrest rates for white youth -- even though both report similar rates of delinquency.” The article also noted that “federal lawmakers recognize youth of color are treated differently by the juvenile justice system.”  [Huffington Post, 10/5/05, via Media Matters]

The New York Times: People Of Color Searched More Than Double Amount Of Whites. The New York Times reported on a Justice Department report that found that people of color were searched more than double the amount of whites, and that black people are incarcerated more frequently and for longer periods of time:

But recent research has kept the argument alive. A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses. [The New York Times10/7/07, via Media Matters]

ACLU: One In Every 106 White Men Are Incarcerated, Compared To One In Every 15 Black Men. The ACLU found that black males are incarcerated at a much higher rate than their white counterparts:

[ACLU, 5/30/12, via Media Matters]