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Reexamining ‘Race’ and Crime
The way we talk about so-called Black criminality misrepresents reality and reinforces a racist worldview
By Sheena Michele Mason
We’ve all heard statistics like these: “Black people commit 50% of murders in the U.S.” “Black people are eight times more likely to murder someone than white people.” “50% of murder victims are black.” People attribute these statistics to different causes depending on their worldview. Some on the left might say that people who get racialized as black—that is, those who are perceived as “black”—are more violent because systemic racism has made them poor, and poor people take desperate measures. Others on the far right might say that the culture of people who get racialized as black inspires them to love violence, promiscuity, crime, etc., more than any other racialized group. Regardless of their reasoning, however, most people seem to believe these statistics say something meaningful about people who get racialized as black.
A closer look at the data, however, shows that “black” criminality simply isn’t the crisis some media outlets paint it to be. Moreover, examining crime through the lens of race doesn’t lead to more justice and equality; to the contrary, it perpetuates racist beliefs and behaviors.
The Theory of Racelessness
Most Americans tacitly believe that “race” exists independently of racism or racist attitudes. They presuppose that humans possess inherent “racial” features and that racist beliefs and actions are biased against these features. People also believe that “racial equality” and “racial justice” are possible and necessary, despite the fact that “racial” views of justice and equality inherently mean racist outcomes.
If one applies the theory of racelessness, one sees more clearly. The theory of racelessness is a framework for talking and teaching about race(ism) and resolving the causes and effects of race(ism). To advance liberation and avoid the unintentional upholding of racism, I use the terms “race(ism),” “race(ist),” “raci(al/st), “antirace(ist),” “race(ism)less” and “antirace(ism).” I also speak not of black or white people, but of people who get racialized as black or racialized as white. The point of these coinings is to highlight the deep reciprocal causal connections between things typically thought to be distinct, such as race(ism) and the idea of race.
As a framework, the theory of racelessness has rules and tools that any can engage and apply. First, our belief in race and practice of racialization are not meaningless because both racism and valuable aspects of humanity hide behind what we call race. However, although we are all racialized by ourselves and others, we are raceless. Race(ism) is a social and/or economic class hierarchy based on the belief in race and the practice of racialization. Raci(al/st) ideology—our belief in race and practice of racialization—is the vehicle for maintaining the cause and effects of race(ism), even in its seemingly innocuous forms, like beliefs about the authenticity of people who get racialized or racialize themselves (or both) as black. There’s no way to be “black” unless one accepts that to be “black” is to be outside of humanity in some people’s eyes.
Viewed through this lens, the terms racial justice and racial equality are oxymorons. Many Americans have inherited racialized ways of thinking about and moving toward justice, which ensures that almost no one—especially not those of the working class—actually achieves any measure of justice. If we apply that which is presumed to be “race” or “racial” to our conception of justice, we have missed the mark and stayed neatly within the confines of race(ism), a permanent social order.
If we continue to measure ourselves by race(ist) measurements, the end of race(ism) will remain elusive, and its effects will be magnified in ways not yet fully understood or acknowledged. In other words, if we continue to limit justice to conversations about people who get racialized as black measured against people who get racialized as white (i.e., racial justice), those who are arguably most impacted by any detrimental system will remain increasingly so.
Justice is not demanding that people who get racialized as black be shot by police in exactly the same probability and circumstances as people who aren’t racialized as black. Justice does not say children who get racialized as black must read at the below-average, very mediocre level of children who get racialized as not-black. Justice is not ensuring that people who get racialized as black are murdered or commit murders at exactly the same rate as those racialized as white. As Barbara Fields and Adam Rothman say in “The Death of Hannah Fizer,” it is a right not to be subjected to a racist double standard, not a privilege. And people who share economic class status have far more in common than race(ism) would have us believe.
Social vs. Economic Class Differences
American society continues to devolve into a place where social class warfare takes precedence over economic factors in ways that limit the quality and length of life, interpersonal connections, values, capacity and potential in different ways depending on one’s economic class. In 2020, Oprah Winfrey, an American talk show host, TV producer, actress, author and philanthropist, was joined by Emmanuel Acho on “The Oprah Conversation” to answer viewers’ questions about race(ism). One guest said that not all people who get racialized as white have power and wondered aloud if grouping all those people into a single box was an effective way of addressing race(ism) and “inequities that are in this country and are in this world.” Winfrey responded, “There are white people who are not as powerful as the system of white people—the caste system that’s been put in place. But they still, no matter where they are on the rung or ladder of success, they still have their whiteness.”
Aside from mistaking the metaphor of whiteness as essence, as indicative of the being of people who get racialized as white, she did what many well-to-do people have done before her. Although she’s a billionaire, Winfrey asserts that poor people who get racialized as white still have their “whiteness,” with complete disregard for the unequal access to decent education, good healthcare, healthy environments and so on that largely depends on one’s economic class standing. Her way of thinking also obscures the history of the wealthy colonizers and enslavers who designed raci(al/st) ideology so that members of the working class would not see themselves as sharing the same plight, in favor of a social-class worldview that would ultimately hinder upward economic mobility.
Money certainly does not guarantee a person’s happiness. But the correlation between economic class and preventative medicine, health and wellness, education, earning potential and the like is undeniable by fair-minded people. Yet, race(ism) operates in ways that require economically privileged or disadvantaged people to behave—falsely—as though they have more in common with people who share their “race” than with those who share their economic circumstances. We should not continue to conflate social class with economic class, but we cannot stop the conflation until we stop our systemic problem of racializing everything. As a result of our conflations, we remain unclear about what race(ism) is, what it isn’t and what we should do about it. Even when we think we have found our way outside of the matrix, we are often trapped in a different part of it, still blind and signing furiously to one another in the dark.
A Closer Look at the Data
To illustrate how the theory of racelessness helps us see more clearly, I examine a data set on criminalization by people who get racialized as black and show the theory in application. I am not an economist or mathematician. I mean this to be a very basic analysis and presentation of data that anyone can Google and interpret. For the purpose of this argument, it doesn’t matter whether the numbers are 100% correct and from the best possible sources. This essay is not about numbers. Instead, my primary objective is to emphasize how raci(al/st) ideology leads us to particular beliefs that don’t necessarily align with reality, helps to perpetuate the cause and effects of race(ism) and allows for economic class issues largely to fly under the radar in favor of racialized identification and solution-making, the antithesis of justice.
The following set of data that people throw around, and whose most popular and accepted interpretations get blamed on the system of race(ism) or the inferiority of so-called black culture (i.e., so-called black people), has to do with violent crime. These ideas about people who get racialized as black stem from the narratives enslavers and politicians (sometimes the same people) spread about enslaved people. Enslaved people were presumed to be shifty, devilish, savage and in need of “saving” and “breaking” because their natural inclinations ensured their immorality, violence, criminality and hypersexuality. These beliefs about people who get racialized as black remain and get carried on through our continued belief in race and the practice of racialization.
But it’s not often that anyone inquires about the numbers or reads them in a way that does not exaggerate reality and automatically affirm their raci(al/st) beliefs. In 2019, law enforcement arrested a total of 6,816,975 people (out of the 329.5 million people who then lived in the U.S.) for serious crimes such as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson, forgery, fraud, embezzlement, vandalism, drug abuse, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct, according to the FBI’s racialized data. That’s 2% of the U.S. population arrested for committing a crime, including violent crimes—and the percentage found guilty is presumably even less. The total number of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter arrests was 7,964.
Here’s the racialized breakdown of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter arrests, courtesy of the FBI: 3,650 white (45.8% of the distribution), 4,078 black or African American (51.2%), 125 American Indian or Alaska Native (1.6%), 83 Asian (1%) and 28 Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (0.4%). In 2019, 54.7% of the homicide victims got racialized as black. Statista reports that the total number of homicide victims in 2020 was 17,754. Here’s the racialized and ethnicized breakdown: 7,029 white (39% of the distribution), 9,913 black (55%), 497 other race (3%), 315 unknown race (2%); 2,847 Hispanic or Latino (16%), 11,347 not Hispanic or Latino (64%) and 1,985 unknown ethnicity (11%).
By these measurements, people who get racialized as black represent a disproportionate percentage of people committing murder and getting murdered. Of course, we should do all we can to lessen the frequency of crimes committed and the victimization of such crimes. All our lives are valuable and have meaning. But a whopping 0.01004433% of people who got racialized as black in the U.S. in 2019 were arrested for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter. That same year, 0.02441626% of people who got racialized as black were murder victims. If we examine all violent crime arrests and victimizations, something like 2% of people who get racialized as black committed violent crimes in 2019. By comparison, 0.25% of people who get racialized as white committed violent crimes.
So, the statistic that “black people are 8x more likely to murder than white people” is based on this math: 0.25% (criminals racialized as white) multiplied by 8 equals 2% (criminals racialized as black). Those are pretty small numbers in the grand scheme of things. If race(ism), poverty, an inferior culture or inferior DNA is causing so-called black people to be more violent, where is the supporting data and information? We should readily recognize the fictional “black” boogieman who terrorizes other “black” people and murders them willy-nilly without regard for the value of human life. That boogieman, monster, not-human messaging by elite people who got racialized as white is precisely how extreme acts of violence have been incited, like the Wilmington insurrection and massacre of 1898.
Breaking Free From the Matrix of Race(ism)
I seriously question the motives of anyone who wields conclusions based on a fraction of a story as political cudgels. But, of course, that is the design behind our belief in race and the practice of racialization. It was only ever meant to keep us woefully divided, no matter our take on any serious matter. As Dorothy Roberts illustrates in “Fatal Invention,” race(ism) is a political system. We are all in the matrix of race(ism), even those who insist we are not because we “think for ourselves.” As Toni Morrison points out in the foreword to her novel “Paradise,” the true danger of raci(al/st) ideology is that it never creates new knowledge. We stay in the machinery of the changing same. That is true for the entirety of the political spectrum. No “side” remains impervious to the same belief in race. Same stories, different times.
The media, technology industry, government and education system would have us believe in race(ist) tropes rather than be encouraged to question everything because our questioning would pose an imminent danger to the status quo. The theory of racelessness helps people see more clearly outside of race(ism) and raci(al/st) ideology for the betterment of all. We cannot solve a problem we misname or misidentify except by accident, and we remain distracted from meaningful solutions to most problems. I do not want to decrease by accident the number of people who murder or get murdered out of some misguided notion of “racial” justice. I would rather any measures taken be intentional and strategic. And I would rather people stop suffering from racist delusions concerning serious problems such as violent crime.
Again, I admit that I am not a mathematician or an economist. My very basic understanding of math will not allow me to leap to any false conclusions about the supposed violent tendencies of people who get racialized as black. Yet, time and again, I see countless others spin numbers to unknowing audiences that support and maintain the cause and effects of race(ism) itself. Most people who leverage those types of talking points think that a significantly higher percentage of so-called black people are murdering and being murdered by other so-called black people. How a person thinks about a problem will inevitably influence how they solve or uphold a problem. For many reasons, raci(al/st) ideology clouds our minds regarding receiving information, interpreting information and problem-solving. I would be overjoyed to see the total murder rate as close to zero as humanly possible, but I seriously doubt our capacity to do that will improve by maintaining raci(al/st) ways of seeing and being.
We write race(ism) and its effects onto ourselves and one another in ways that allow race(ism), both the causes and the effects, to thrive. The theory of racelessness, by contrast, helps people learn and grapple with the much more nuanced and complicated reality of human life than raci(al/st) ideology—black and white thinking—encourages and indeed requires. With this theory, we can get so much closer to the truth and recognize problems with an astuteness that currently escapes many. We can disallow the continued inheritance of dehumanizing raci(al/st) ideologies for future generations. We can, in short, show them what not to do while we do better.