USA Today did something remarkable yesterday: the nationwide publication devoted thousands of words on its website and in its pages to an eye-opening investigation showing that Black people in cities across the nation are arrested at rates far higher than whites. But then USA Today proceeded to say that the reason was not due to racism.
Noting that in most of the 1,581 police departments analyzed by the publication, Blacks are arrested at rates more than three times that of whites—and at least 10 times more than whites in at least 70 cities—the publication was at a loss to explain why.
“Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain,” USA Today wrote. “They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling, tried to explain the disparities without blaming it on racism on the part of law enforcement.
“That does not mean police are discriminating,” he said of the racial disparity. “But it does mean it’s worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention.”
The USA Today analysis used arrests reported to the federal government in 2011 and 2012. Among the paper’s findings were these:
• Blacks are more likely to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime—from murder and assault to crimes as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.
• While Ferguson’s disparity of arresting Blacks at a rate three times greater than whites was considered fairly high, there were many places with much larger disparities. One of those places was nearby Clayton, Mo., where the Black population is only about 8 percent, but Blacks make up about 57 percent of arrests.
• Even so-called progressive university towns like Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., arrested Black people at a rate more than nine times higher than members of other racial groups.
• Of the 3,538 police departments USA Today examined, only 173 arrested Black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups.
“Something needs to be done about that,” said Ezekiel Edwards, the head of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “In 2014, we shouldn’t continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look.”
But Phillip Goff, president of the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Policing Equity, told USA Today the racial comparisons are “seductively misleading.”
“There is no doubt a significant degree of law enforcement bias that is the engine for this. But there’s also no controversy that educational quality and employment discrimination lead to this,” he said. “It’s not an indicator of how big a problem there is with a police department. It’s an aggregator of what’s going on in the community.”
Still, he said, “there’s some level of disparity that is a warning sign.”
At least the Pitt professor, Harris, was willing to state that Black people notice the disparities.
“Believe me, the people who are subject to this are noticing it and they’re noticing it not just individually but as a group. It gets talked about, handed down, and it sows distrust of the whole system,” he said.
But he forgot to mention that in the Black community, residents have one word for what leads to such incredible disparities: racism.