Jason L. Riley
- July 15, 2013, 7:12 p.m. ET
Jason Riley: Race, Politics and the Zimmerman Trial
The left wants to blame black criminality on racial animus and ‘the system,’ but blacks have long been part of running that system.
- JASON L. RILEY
George Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder charges in a Florida court has been followed by predictable calls for America to have a “national conversation” about this or that aspect of the case. President Obama wants to talk about gun control. Civil-rights leaders want to talk about racial profiling. Others want to discuss how the American criminal justice system supposedly targets black men.
All of which is fine. Just don’t expect these conversations to be especially illuminating or honest. Liberals in general, and the black left in particular, like the idea of talking about racial problems, but in practice they typically ignore the most relevant aspects of any such discussion.
Any candid debate on race and criminality in this country would have to start with the fact that blacks commit an astoundingly disproportionate number of crimes. African-Americans constitute about 13% of the population, yet between 1976 and 2005 blacks committed more than half of all murders in the U.S. The black arrest rate for most offenses—including robbery, aggravated assault and property crimes—is typically two to three times their representation in the population. The U.S. criminal-justice system, which currently is headed by one black man (Attorney General Eric Holder) who reports to another (President Obama), is a reflection of this reality, not its cause.
“High rates of black violence in the late twentieth century are a matter of historical fact, not bigoted imagination,” wrote the late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz in “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” “The trends reached their peak not in the land of Jim Crow but in the more civilized North, and not in the age of segregation but in the decades that saw the rise of civil rights for African Americans—and of African American control of city governments.”
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.
Associated PressAbout 500 other demonstrators during a rally and march in support of Trayvon Martin in Birmingham, Ala., on July 15.
The jury’s only job in the Zimmerman trial was to determine whether the defendant broke the law when he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year in a gated community near Orlando, Fla. In cases of self-defense, it doesn’t matter who initiated the confrontation; whether Mr. Zimmerman singled out Martin because he was a black youngster in a neighborhood where there had been a series of burglaries by black youngsters; or whether Mr. Zimmerman disregarded what the police dispatcher told him before he got out of his car. Nor does it matter that Martin was unarmed and minding his own business when Mr. Zimmerman approached.
All that really mattered in that courtroom is whether Mr. Zimmerman reasonably believed that his life was in danger when he pulled the trigger. Critics of the verdict might not like the statutes that allowed for this outcome, but the proper response would not have been for the jury to ignore them and convict.
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 homicide rate claiming black victims today is seven times that of whites, and the George Zimmermans of the world are not the reason. Some 90% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks.
So let’s have our discussions, even if the only one that really needs to occur is within the black community. Civil-rights leaders today choose to keep the focus on white racism instead of personal responsibility, but their predecessors knew better.
“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in 1961. “We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”
Mr. Riley is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.
A version of this article appeared July 16, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Race, Politics and the Zimmerman Trial.
by JASON L. RILEY
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
Thursday, 18 July 13
Earlier this week, I wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal about the George Zimmerman trial.
My basic point was that, if you are someone who believes that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled—which is a view that I have seen no evidence to support—then let’s have an honest conversation about the hard data on race and crime that drives negative perceptions of black youths.
The reality is that young black men are perceived as likely criminals because a hugely disproportionate number of them commit crimes. And if blacks want to change those perceptions, young black men need to change their behavior. I ended the article with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.
“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards,” King once told a black congregation. “We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”
The response to my article was overwhelmingly positive, but some readers accused me of fabricating the King quote, which comes from a James Baldwin profile of King that appeared in a 1961 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I was a little taken aback by the accusation, and not just because the Harper’s piece can be located and read without too much effort via Google.
But what really struck me about the accusation is that those making it apparently just couldn’t believe that the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders used to speak this way about problems in the black community and the role of personal responsibility. Which might tell you all you need to know about the quality of what passes for black leadership today.