Mass incarceration myths

Another book, another effort at deceitful propaganda. Powerline takes a look at Walters & Murray: The new Jim Crow revisited.

This book (hereafter, TNJC) is careless. The carelessness produces misdirection and it undermines the argument. Facts are stretched, the scholarly apparatus is weak, and the core argument is often contradicted by its own evidence.

Nonetheless, TNJC is a very popular book—rising to The New York Times best seller list, required reading for incoming students at Brown University

In a nutshell, TNJC argues that “[w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” From the book jacket: “By targeting black men through the War on Drugs, and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to permanent second-class status.” A primary concern is the loss of the right to vote.

The specific list of factual misstatements is long. For a book with scholarly pretentions, it is noteworthy that the book lacks a bibliography, and that its endnote citations are woeful.

Conduct either matters or it doesn’t. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton asserts that it does. Bratton argues that blacks and Hispanics “represent half of our city’s population, but 96.9 percent of those who are shot, and 97.6 percent of those who commit the shootings.” These are terrible, troubling numbers. Dismissing the underlying phenomenon as a matter of mere “labels” is an irresponsible evasion.

We are expected to ignore the fact that black and white middleclass suburbs are not, by any objective measure, the primary locus of the criminal conduct at issue: firearms discharges (detected by automated recorders, not subject to “implicit bias”), violent-crime-related 911 calls, actual homicide victims—all these things are significantly less common in suburbs, and every sensible person knows that already.

Again we must dismiss actual data when we read that “The uncomfortable reality is that arrests and convictions for drug offenses—not violent crime—have propelled mass incarceration.” In state prisons, holding the largest number of incarcerated inmates, only 16 percent are drug offenders—54 percent of those incarcerated are violent offenders.

One could refute the specific criminal justice and drug use claims, and we shall try in one case. But we suspect that this is a trap. Every effort to rebut will be seen as confirmation of denial, even complicity, in American injustice. Even invoking the differential victimization of blacks by crime can be dismissed as pretext sustaining the system of injustice.

If you’re not troubled yet, you should be. The popularity of TNJC risks engendering a cycle of violent victimization of our most vulnerable citizens, who must depend on the criminal justice system to be their protector. The reality of black victimization requires us to strengthen, not condemn and abandon, institutions of law and order. TNJC makes telling the truth about our struggle on the streets an urgent duty.

The new students at Brown University, required to confront untrue charges that criminal justice in America is no more than an exercise in deliberate “mass incarceration,” should beware lest we fall prey to yet another “low, dishonest decade.”

Suspecting a trap when trying to take the stretch out of a ‘factual’ presentation? That is why there is trouble. Calling it dishonesty doesn’t go deep enough to explain the book and the tenacity with which its false reality is held. The popularity of such a book raises serious questions about just how serious many really are when it comes to solving serious problems of race and social behavior.

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