THE BLOG
07/21/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2013

Why Am I Afraid of Trayvon Martin?

On Friday, President Obama challenged the nation to "do some soul-searching" in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin. "In families and churches and workplaces," the president said, "ask yourself your own questions: Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people... based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?"

I am a well-meaning white person. I am married to a beautiful black woman from South Africa. I attended liberal universities where tolerance and diversity were the order of the day. I have been fortunate to travel the globe and break bread with people of many different colors and creeds. Someday, God willing, I will have a son who looks something like Trayvon Martin.

But for all my bona fides in brotherly love, I regularly fail to meet the president's test.

On a recent drive downtown to visit a friend in hospital, I struggled to make my way down busy streets and fend off honking taxis in search of a parking space (cities are not my strong suit). When I finally squeezed into a narrow bay in an unfamiliar, but unoffensive, part of town, I realized I had more than just the traffic and parking regulations to deal with; I had my deep-seated prejudices too.

Noticing a few young men hanging out across the street, I paused and reconsidered. What were the odds that they would bust my window and help themselves to the contents of my car? Was it worth the risk? With time running out and little chance of finding another spot, I grabbed my laptop, shoved a few belongings under the seat, and locked the car doors, twice, before disappearing around the corner in a hurry. Two hours later, I returned to find my car unscathed, like every other car on the block. My conscience, however, was not.

Yes, the guys across the street were black.

So what?

First, let me offer a common set of defenses to my racialized conception of crime and criminals -- defenses that instinctively came to mind as I tried to sort out what had happened on the drive home, and tried to prepare an honest confession for my beloved wife. First, crime in the big city is higher than where I come from, plain and simple. Second, it was an unfamiliar part of town. Third, as everyone knows, black men are statistically more likely to engage in acts of crime, whatever we may think about who or what is to blame.

Or are they?

It turns out that "conventional wisdom" on the matter of race and criminality is a good deal more conventional than it is wise. So I was shocked to discover as I started digging through the academic literature on racial trends within the criminal justice system, in an attempt to make sense of my subconscious bias. The following are a few key findings from several weeks' worth of investigation.

To be sure, people of color in America are considerably more likely to be arrested, convicted, and punished for criminal offenses, per capita, than whites -- although the largest number of convicted criminals is and always has been white. According to official government statistics from the FBI's Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans get picked up by the police at roughly seven times the rate of white people and they are more than seven times as likely to end up behind bars.

But the data on arrests do not measure crime per se; they measure police activity in clearing reported crimes and responding to crimes which they observe themselves. There is ample evidence to suggest that police concentrate considerably more attention and resources on urban minority areas; for decades under the so-called "War on Drugs," local police departments were paid to do just that by the federal government.

For example, official police statistics from New York City show that 90 percent of the 533,042 people stopped by the police in 2011 under the city's controversial "stop and frisk" policy were members of minority groups, including an outright majority who were black and just ten percent who were white. Black people were eight times as likely as white people to be stopped, eleven times as likely to be frisked, and twelve times as likely to have force used against them by the police. What's more, half of all those stopped and frisked were between the age of 14-24 and fully nine in ten were found to be totally innocent. Guns were picked up in just one out of a thousand cases.

Studies also show that while black people use and sell illegal drugs at slightly lower rates than whites, they are between three and six times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses, the leading cause of incarceration in the United States, according to Human Rights Watch. Even in school, black students are punished more harshly than their white counterparts for committing the same offenses. The Department of Education reports that 42 percent of black students disciplined at school are referred to law enforcement, compared to 25 percent of whites.

What's more, numerous empirical analyses challenge the claim that minority overrepresentation in the criminal justice system generally is the result of people of color committing more crime. For example, a recent review of 32 state-level studies of conviction rates and prison sentences across the board found that, even after controlling for other relevant factors, black and Hispanic offenders were considerably more likely to land in jail -- and for longer periods of time -- than whites who had committed the same offenses.

Still, findings such as these don't stop most commentators from treating rates of arrest and rates of crime as one-and-the-same thing.

Of course, it doesn't help that people of color in America are far more likely than whites to grow up poor, according to the U.S. Census, and poverty increases the risk of committing and experiencing crime, regardless of racial group. Nor does it help that people who enter the criminal justice system find it very hard to emerge. Controlling for various socioeconomic factors, researchers estimate that incarceration reduces employment and annual earnings by 40 percent for the typical male offender released from prison. Poverty and unemployment, in turn, raise the odds that he will reoffend, and tough sentencing guidelines only make matters worse.

The net effect on communities of color is staggering. In an era of mass incarceration, where 2.2 million Americans are currently behind bars (five times the national rate in 1980 and more than any other country by far), a black man is more likely to land in jail than earn a college degree. According to recent research, for the generation of black Baby Boomers who came of age before the "War on Drugs," rates of male incarceration hovered around ten percent; for black men born in the 1970s, however, the rate was five times higher. Fully two-thirds of black men without a high school diploma born in the 1970s spend part of their lives in jail, a trend that continues to this day.

It bears mentioning that the bulk of these disenfranchised felons are jailed for non-violent, especially drug-related offenses - the kinds of things I witnessed a thousand times at my predominantly white, Ivy League university, where the police were too busy protecting us from muggings, real or imagined (I can't recall a fellow student I knew getting mugged), to take notice of what we drank or smoked inside the gated dorms.

All of which spells bad news for kids who are unlucky enough to be born in poor communities. One in four black children -- six times higher than whites -- grows up with a parent in jail, and 38 percent of black children are living in poverty today, compared to 12 percent of their white counterparts. Nearly ninety percent of children who experience long-term poverty are also black, according to the research.

Not surprisingly, researchers also find that children born into poverty are twice as likely as non-poor children to die in infancy, twice as likely to experience poor or fair health, and twice as likely to face learning disabilities and other cognitive deficits that keep them behind in school. Put it all together and they end up three times as likely to fail out of school and six times as likely to experience poverty once they become an adult. They don't call it the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" for nothing.

If official statistics provide shaky ground to support my prejudice, surely my own experience with crime can explain such racist assumptions? No.

In my lifetime, I've been a victim of crime six times that I can remember. First, in grade school, I was unceremoniously tossed into a trash can at the public park by a stranger several times my age and weight. He was as white as the town we lived in. I got trash in my hair and he got a slap on the wrist.

Then, in middle school, some kid in my basketball league stole 60 bucks out of my wallet while our team was on the court. We were in the town next door of Wilton, New Hampshire (population 3,700). I never caught the rascal, but it's hard to imagine he was any less white than I, considering there wasn't a person of color for miles around.

A few years later, in high school, a white kid from the mobile home park nearby stole my bike out of our driveway in Temple, NH (population 1,300). I knew the kid and felt sorry for him; if you had heard his story, you would've felt sorry for him too. The bike never ran the same, but I couldn't bring myself to press charges.

Then, in college, my old Honda Accord was stolen from the lot in New Haven, Connecticut (population 129,000). I'll never know the complexion of that thief, but happily for me, the police picked up the car with a busted ignition and an empty tank of gas two weeks later. It was abandoned by the side of the road only a few blocks from my home in a mostly white part of town.

The fifth time, in 2010, I had some pricey goods stolen from my car in lily-white Concord, New Hampshire (population 43,000). They never apprehended the guy (or gal), but chances are good he also looked like me.

Finally, quite recently, our apartment was broken into in the predominantly white Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch. The offenders were also not apprehended. I'll admit my guess is that they're black, but reports of white drug addicts stealing goods to feed their habits are not infrequent in these parts.

Six crimes, four white criminals, and two unknown. That seems logical enough, considering I've spent most of my life in predominantly white surroundings and most crimes are committed by the guy next door (literally or figuratively speaking). But it bears mentioning that during my year of AmeriCorps service in inner-city Washington, DC -- and during countless other trips through urban ghettos in 30 states while researching American poverty by Greyhound bus -- I never once experienced, or witnessed, a single act of crime. Not to mention the notorious black townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, where I have made numerous trips and emerged each time unscathed.

What, then, can be the cause of my stubborn fear of crime at the hands of black men, when both statistics and personal experience tell a different story? Could it be rooted in the fact that for much of my life growing up in small-town New Hampshire, the images I saw of black people in the media overwhelmingly conformed to a few ugly stereotypes: black people were criminals or welfare queens, corrupt or lazy, extravagant or poor? Thanks to a lack of diversity (patterns of residential segregation persistent throughout the country), there were no black people around to correct my false impressions.

And what of the fact that, with the solitary exceptions of Martin Luther King and Michael Jordan, all the great Americans I was taught to look up to were white like me? Indeed, in every book, movie, newspaper, and TV, the implicit message I received about race was "white is right."

Prejudice is a complicated thing and I am no sociologist. I cannot say if it resides in George Zimmerman's heart, or in the hearts of his many vociferous defenders and detractors. That is between them and their God. What I can say is this: for all my faith in Dr. King's ideal of the "beloved community" -- and for all my attempts to live it out in daily life -- I have yet to overcome my own subconscious bias and realize racial justice in my life.

(For more perspectives on race and relationships, see Dan and Sindiso's blog, Mixed Up on Cecil Road)