Even if you know that African Americans are arrested at a greater rate than their white counterparts, it’s still a shock to see the scale of the disparity. To wit, according to a new study published in the Journal of Crime & Delinquency, nearly 50 percent of all black males have been arrested by the age of 23. Overall, 30 percent of black men, 26 percent of Latino men, and 22 percent of white men have been arrested by age 18, and those numbers jump—respectively—to 49 percent, 44 percent, and 38 percent after five years.
In a press release, the lead author of the study—University of South Carolina sociologist Robert Brame—is forthright about what this means for their livelihoods and future success, even if an arrest doesn’t come with a conviction. “Criminal records that show up in searches can impede employment, reduce access to housing, thwart admission to and financing for higher education and affect civic and volunteer activities such as voting or adoption. They also can damage personal and family relationships,” he says.
It’s key that we’re clear about what this information means. The high arrest rate for African American men isn’t evidence of greater criminality; it’s evidence of greater policing. We can see this in arrest rates for different offenses. The black arrest rate for marijuana possession, for instance, is nearly three times the arrest rate for whites, despite similar rates of marijuana use. But, because blacks are more likely to live in hyper-segregated neighborhoods with levels of poverty unseen among whites, they’re more likely to have regular police contact. Likewise, between the war on drugs and policies like “stop and frisk,” blacks in many areas are more likely to encounter law enforcement, not because they’re more likely to commit crimes, but because we’ve institutionalized the ridiculous view that blackness has something to do with criminality.
One other thing: As liberals and conservatives argue over the ultimate efficacy of our “war on poverty,” it’s important to recognize the extent to which both parties undermined the fight for economic security with a hugely draconian approach to criminal justice. Low-income communities were met with over-policing and mass incarceration at the same time the federal government hit the brakes on anti-poverty programs. When you add that to the powerful legacy of housing discrimination, the collapse of the industrial base, and the cumulative disadvantage of generational poverty, you’re left with stagnation, decline, and ruin.
If the War on Poverty was a failure—or alternatively, just a modest success—then it has a lot to do with the fact that we ignored segregation, pursued a ruinous War on Drugs, and refused to invest resources in the communities we engineered for failure.