Last Updated on July 20, 2022
The purpose of this post is to explore two commonly hypothesized explanations of the high levels of criminality in the black population. The first explanation states that high rates of black crime is primarily the result of systemic racism against blacks. The second explanation states that high rates of black crime is primarily the result of the structural or socioeconomic circumstances that black people find themselves in. I will present data that should prompt skepticism of both of these explanations. I’ll begin by describing racial differences in crime.
The degree of black criminality
Black people are significantly more likely to engage in criminal activity relative to other racial groups. I write about this in more detail in a separate post, so I’ll just mention a few key points here:
- Blacks commit 37% of violent crime despite being 13% of the general population (FBI crime statistics [archived]).
- Blacks commit 53% of murders and 54% of robberies (FBI crime statistics [archived]).
- Homicide is the leading cause of death for black males aged 15-19, aged 20-24, and aged 25-35 (see page 34 [archived]).
- Homicide is the cause of most deaths (50.8%) of black males aged 15-19 and nearly half (49.6%) of deaths of black males aged 20-24 (see page 34). For comparison, homicide was the cause of only 3-5% of the deaths of white males of this age (see page 27 [archived]).
- The homicide death rate for blacks aged 20-24 (110.8 deaths per 100,000 population; page 34) is over 20 times the rate for similarly aged whites (5.4 deaths per 100,000 population; page 27 [archived]).
- Among the 10 cities with the highest homicide rates in the country, 4 are black majorities and 9 are black pluralities (see my separate post for sources).
Some people try to explain high black crime rates by appealing to alleged systemic racism in the United States. These types of explanations are undermined by the following facts: (1) the high levels of misconduct among black children, (2) the low crime rate (relative to the black crime rate) of other non-black minorities in the United States, (3) the low incarceration rate for black legal immigrants, and (4) the high crime rate of blacks in other countries.
Early black misconduct
Rampant levels of misconduct appear in black children very early in life, as early as preschool. I give more details in a separate post, but here are some important facts:
- A 2010 report [archived] on urban middle schoolers by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that black males are nearly 3 times as likely as white males to be suspended (28.3% vs 10%) [Figure 2]. Black females are over 4 times as likely as white females to be suspended (18% vs 4%) [Figure 2].
- A 2014 report [archived] by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows that “Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of preschool students suspended once, and 48% of students suspended more than once.”
- A 2014 study [archived] published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that prior problem behavior accounts for the racial disparity in school suspensions: “Replicating prior studies, we first show a clear racial gap between black and white students in suspensions. However, in subsequent analyses the racial gap in suspensions was completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student – a finding never before reported in the literature.” The study concludes, “these findings highlight the importance of early problem behaviors and suggest that the use of suspensions by teachers and administrators may not have been as racially biased as some scholars have argued.”
This undermines explanations of black criminality that appeal to systemic racism because it’s not clear how systemic racism could be the cause of misbehavior among black preschoolers. Systemic racism might seem plausible as an explanation of criminality among black adults. For example, one might say that various racist institutions – e.g. the criminal justice system or the education system – disproportionately target and harm black people, which ultimately results in them being disenfranchised from society and forced into criminality. However, the explanation does not seem so plausible when applied to black preschoolers. These children have not had much interaction with the criminal justice system or even school systems, so they have not had much interaction with the main institutions that would be the agents of systemic racism. Given the lack of interaction with these institutions, we have to ask, what is the mechanism that explains how systemic racism causes black children to misbehave at such a young age?
One possible answer is to posit that differences in socioeconomic status (SES) between black and white households cause disproportionate criminality in young black children, and to posit that these SES differences are caused by systemic racism. Thus, the argument might go, systemic racism is ultimately the cause of rampant levels of misconduct among black children. This argument rests on the claim that SES differences between blacks and whites explain the high levels of crime among black people. I respond to this claim in later sections of the post, where I explain why SES-based explanations fail to account for black criminality. But for now, I’ll just mention a report that should motivate skepticism of this claim:
- A 2018 report [archived] on discipline disparities shows that the racial disparity in suspension rate is not accounted for by controlling for level of school poverty. At every level of school poverty, black students are significantly more likely to be suspended than any other race of students. In fact, the out-of-school suspension rate for black students attending schools with the lowest level of poverty (7.5%) is higher than the rate for white students attending schools with the highest level of poverty (7.3%) [Table 14].
Explanations of black criminality that appeal to systemic racism in the U.S. are undermined by the low crime rates of other racial minorities (relative to the black crime rate). Systemic racism cannot explain why blacks have far higher crime rates than every other racial group in the United States:
- The homicide rate for blacks (10.3 homicides per 100k) is about 4 times higher than the rate for Hispanics (2.71 per 100k) Hispanics, 5 times higher than the rate for American Indians or Alaska Natives (1.95 per 100k), and nearly 15 times the rate for Asians and Pacific Islanders (0.727 per 100k). (homicide rates calculated using FBI crime statistics 2018 [archived] and U.S. Census 2019 population data [archived]).
- Among 20-24-year-old males, the homicide death rate for blacks (110.8 per 100k) is over 4 times the rate for Hispanics (22.5 per 100k), over 4 times the rate for American Indians or Alaska Natives (26.4 per 100k), and over 25 times the rate for Asians and Pacific Islanders (4.2 per 100k). (National Vital Statistics Reports 2018). Homicide death rates can be a good indication of murder rates since data [archived] from the FBI suggest that crime is overwhelmingly intra-racial.
Also, systemic racism cannot explain why Asians have lower crime rates than whites:
- The homicide rate for Asians and Pacific Islanders (0.727 per 100k) is less than half the rate for whites (1.69 per 100k) (homicide rates calculated using FBI crime statistics 2018 [archived] and U.S. Census 2019 population data [archived]).
- Among 20-24-year-old males, the homicide death rate for Asians and Pacific Islanders (4.2 per 100k) is lower than the death rate for whites (5.4 per 100k) (National Vital Statistics Reports 2018).
Systemic racism might seem plausible as an explanation for why blacks have higher crime rates relative to whites. One might be able to argue that society is structured in a way that benefits the majority at the expense of the minorities, which ultimately results in blacks being compelled to commit crimes through a variety of social forces. That might seem plausible, but this cannot explain why blacks have far higher crime rates than every other racial minority in the country. Surely, systemic racism harms these other racial minorities too? Appealing to systemic racism as an explanation of black criminality requires positing that, for some strange reason, the societal bias against black people specifically is extremely stronger than the societal bias against other racial minorities (presumably, the bias needs to be extremely stronger to explain why blacks are extremely more likely to engage in criminality). This may seem plausible for certain minorities but not for all other minorities. For example, the genocidal history of Native Americans in the United States would suggest that anti-Native American bias is at least not extremely weaker than anti-black bias. But even if it can be demonstrated that societal bias against blacks is extremely stronger than bias for other racial minorities, one still needs to demonstrate a mechanism that explains how this anti-black bias causes blacks to commit crimes to such extreme degrees. It is unlikely that any of this can be demonstrated.
Another problem with systemic racism as an explanation of black criminality is the relatively low rate of incarceration for black legal immigrants:
- According to a 2018 brief [archived] by the Cato Institute, black immigrants have far lower incarceration rates than black natives. The incarceration rate for black legal immigrants, while high relative to other legal immigrants, is low relative to natives. In fact, the incarceration rate for black legal immigrants is lower than the rate for natives of all racial groups, including white and Asian natives (Table 1).
- The lower crime and incarceration rates for black immigrants remain after controlling for age and education. Rauh (2016) [archived] found that, in 2014, native black males aged 21-35 had far higher incarceration rates than similarly aged immigrant black males among high school dropouts (32.5% vs 8.8%), high school graduates (11.0% vs 1.8%), and those with some college experience (2.6% vs 0.6%) (Table 2). In other words, the incarceration rate for native black high school graduates (11.0%) was higher than the incarceration rate for immigrant black high school dropouts (8.8%). The same table shows that male black immigrants aged 21-35 had lower incarceration rates as similarly aged white males (1.5% vs 1.7%). The incarceration rate for both groups (male black immigrants and white males) was several times lower than the incarceration rate for native black males (9.7%).
This would be an unexpected outcome if systemic racism was a significant cause of black criminality. If societal anti-black bias explains black criminality, then shouldn’t this anti-black bias also apply to black immigrants? Does the anti-black bias only apply to black residents who are citizens? This is implausible. A good explanation of high levels of black native criminality relative to black immigrants must appeal to some factors other than systemic racism. And these factors, whatever they are, likely account for high levels of black criminality relative to non-blacks. Thus, the best explanation of black criminality in the United States likely does not involve any appeal to systemic racism.
Black criminality around the world
The final problem with systemic racism as an explanation of black criminality is the fact that comparable relative levels of black criminality exist in other countries. I give more details on black criminality worldwide in a separate post, but here are a few important points:
- United Kingdom: according to data from the UK Ministry of Justice [archived], black people are arrested at 3 times the rate for white people (66.9 vs 22.8 per 1,000 population) [Table 3.12] and represented 13.1% of the prison population [Table 5.03] despite representing 3.1% of the general population [Table A]. Crime statistics [archived] by the UK government show that for the three-year period year ending March 2017 to the year ending March 2019, blacks accounted for 18% of principal suspects for homicide. This implies that the black homicide rate is over 6 times the white homicide rate, a similar pattern that is found in the United States.
- Canada: a fact sheet [archived] by the Colour of Poverty reported “In 2016, black people comprise 3.5% of the general Canadian population, but made up 10% of the federally incarcerated population.” A 2014 commentary [archived] revealed that “homicide rates among blacks in Montreal were estimated to be as high as 24 per 100,000, strikingly higher than their white counterparts at 3 per 100,000” (page 193). This implies that the black homicide rate is 8 times the white homicide rate, a similar pattern found in the United States.
- Brazil: a 2019 article [archived] published in Think Brazil reported that “In 2017, the number of blacks killed was almost three times higher than among non-blacks (a group encompassing white, Asian, and indigenous people).” A 2013 study [archived] published in Aggression and Violent Behavior grouped the homicide rates by race and found that the homicide rate for blacks (34.6 per 100,000) was over 2 times the rate for whites (16.3), and over 5 times the rate for Asians (6.8) (see section 4.1). Trends in homicide rates can be found here [archived].
- Consider The Handbook of Crime Correlates, a huge book published in 2009 that collects the summary analysis of crime research around the world. Table 2.3.2a summarized the results of a large number of studies that compared the rates of violent crime by blacks and whites in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and Oceania. Every study found that being black was significantly associated with criminality. Also, every study that compared the rates of non-violent criminal and delinquent behavior found that being black was significantly associated with property offenses, drug offenses, and delinquency (Table 2.3.2b).
This would be an unexpected outcome if systemic racism was the primary cause of black criminality in the United States. If societal anti-black bias explains black criminality in the United States, then why do we find comparable rates of black criminality around the world? Do all of these other countries have similar levels of anti-black bias, despite wildly different histories and cultures? This is implausible. A good explanation of black criminality outside of the United States must appeal to some factors other than systemic racism. And these factors, whatever they are, likely account for black criminality in the United States. Thus, the best explanation of black criminality in the United States likely does not involve any appeal to systemic racism.
The evidence presented in this section – the relatively low rates of crime among non-black minorities, the low rate of crime among black legal immigrants, and the high rates of black criminality in other countries – suggests that systemic racism plays little to no causal role in explaining black criminality.
Socioeconomic Status (SES)
Perhaps the most commonly posited explanation of black criminality appeals to the low socioeconomic status (SES) of blacks. But we should be skeptical of these SES-based explanations given that the crime rate for blacks is extremely higher than the crime rate for other low-SES racial groups. I will give examples of this pattern in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Recall from the above that blacks have far higher crime rates than Hispanics and American Indians or Alaska Natives. These disparities in crime are poorly explained by disparities in poverty because the black poverty rate (25.8%) is similar to the poverty rate for Hispanics (23.2%) and American Indians or Alaska Natives (23.9%) (U.S. Census Bureau 2013 [archived], Table 1).
Now, recall that whites have higher crime rates than Asians. Again, these disparities in crime are poorly explained by disparities in poverty because the Asian poverty rate (11.6%) is higher than the white poverty rate (9.9%) (U.S. Census Bureau 2013, Table 1).
Of course, poverty is not the only measure of SES. Perhaps other measures of SES explain high levels of black criminality relative to other poor minority groups. However, this explanation will not work either, because blacks perform similar or better than these other groups on most other measures of SES:
- Unemployment: based on a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [archived], blacks have typically experienced similar unemployment rates as American Indians and Alaska Natives (Tables 12 and 12A). In fact, In recent years (2015-2018), blacks have experienced lower unemployment rates. Compared to Hispanics, blacks have experienced slightly higher unemployment rates (Table 12).
- Labor Participation: Based on the same report, blacks have typically experienced higher labor force participation rates than American Indians and Alaska Natives (Table 4 and 4A). Compared to Hispanics, blacks have experienced fairly similar labor force participation rates (Table 4).
- Parental education: a 2019 report [archived] published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that the parents of black children are more likely to have graduated from high school and to have acquired a bachelor’s or higher degree than the parents of Hispanic or American Indians and Alaska Native children (page 18).
- High school graduation: the same NCES report shows that the high school graduation rate for blacks (78%) was higher than the rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives (72%) and very similar to the rate for Hispanics (80%) (page 124).
- High school completion: the same NCES report shows that blacks are more likely to have completed high school by age 25-29 than Hispanics and American Indians or Alaska Natives (page 237).
- College education: the same NCES report shows that blacks aged 25-29 are more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree than Hispanics or American Indian and Alaska Natives (page 239).
- Youth Idleness: the same NCES report shows that blacks aged 18-24 are less likely to be neither enrolled in school nor working than American Indian and Alaska Natives (22% vs 29%) (page 243). The figure for blacks was moderately larger than the figure for Hispanics (16%).
- Literacy: the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy [archived] found that the literacy rate for blacks was higher than for Hispanics on every metric (although in 1992, the black literacy rate was slightly lower than the Hispanic literacy rate). Data was not published for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
I’ve considered 9 measures of SES: poverty, unemployment, labor force participation, parental education, high school graduation, high school completion, college education, youth idleness, and literacy. Compared to American Indians and Native Alaskans, blacks perform better or similar with respect to each metric for which we have data for both groups. Compared to Hispanics, blacks perform better or similar with respect to 7 of the 9 metrics (blacks perform worse with respect to unemployment and youth idleness).
Note: One metric of SES on which blacks perform significantly worse is family structure (specifically, rates of single-mother households and out-of-wedlock births). This particular component of SES may play a stronger role in explaining black criminality (I will revisit this topic in another post), but SES in general does not.
Just like in the United States, blacks in the United Kingdom have far higher crime rates than Asians:
- Crime statistics [archived] by the U.K. government show that for the three-year period year ending March 2017 to the year ending March 2019, blacks accounted for 18% of principal suspects of homicide offense. This is despite the fact that they account for just 3.4% of the general population (figure 1 from the United Kingdom Census 2011 [archived]). For reference, Asians accounted for 9% of murder suspects despite being 7.5% of the population. This implies that the black murder rate is over 4 times the Asian murder rate in the U.K.
- According to data from the UK Ministry of Justice [archived], the arrest rate for blacks (66.9 per 1,000) is 3 times higher than the arrest rate for Asians (22.9 per 1,000) and those categorized as “Chinese or Other” (20.9 per 1,000) [Table 3.12]. For comparison, the arrest rate for whites is 22.8 per 1,000. Table A shows that Asians, whites, and those categorized as “Chinese or Other” are under-represented in arrests whereas blacks are significantly over-represented.
- Data [archived] from the Metropolitan Police Service shows that blacks (or “Afro-Caribbeans”) committed 4.2 times as many knife crimes as Asians (14,527 vs 3,443) in London during the years 2008-2018. This is despite the fact that there are 20-40% more Asian residents than black residents in London (based on census data [archived] from 1991-2011). This implies that blacks are 5-6 times more likely to commit knife crimes than Asians in London.
- Finally, consider this homicide dashboard published by the Metropolitan Police Service in the United Kingdom. The dashboard contains information on homicide victims and homicide offenders in London since 2003. During 2003-2019, black people committed 1,489 homicides out of a total of 3,635 (sum the B1, B2, and B9 codes), which means black people are responsible for 41% of homicides. Asians committed 525 homicides during this same period (sum the A1, A2, A3, A9, O1, and O9 codes). So blacks committed 7 times as many homicides as Asians. This is despite the fact that the Asian population has been 20-40% larger than the black population during this time (according to London census data [archived] in 2001 and 2011). This implies that the black murder rate is at least 8 times the Asian murder rate in London.
Now, one might try to explain this by appealing to SES disparities between blacks and Asians. However, this is a poor explanation because of the following reasons:
- According to a 2019 report [archived] on income from the UK government, black households receive similar incomes as Asian households. During the period of 2015-2018, the percentage of black households in the lowest 2 income quintiles (55%) was comparable to the percentage of Asian households in the bottom 2 quintiles (53%). In fact, there were slightly more Asian households in the bottom income quintile (31%) than Black households (30%). The report does find that blacks are slightly more likely to find themselves in the bottom income quintile after housing costs (33% vs 40%), but this cannot explain why the black murder rate is over 4 times the murder rate for Asians. Combining this data with the earlier data on murder rates means that the black murder rate in the U.K. is over 4 times the Asian murder rate despite the fact that blacks and Asians have similar probabilities of earning low incomes.
- In London, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people are more likely to be low SES compared to blacks, yet they have far lower crime rates. According to a 2017 report [archived] by Trust for London, the unemployment rate for Bangladeshi and Pakistani people (they were lumped into one group) was higher than the unemployment rate for blacks (46% vs 31%, pages 85-86), and the low pay rate for Bangladeshi and Pakistani people (46%, page 103) was higher than the low pay rate for blacks (46% vs 35%, page 103). However, according to the homicide dashboard on London homicides during 2003-2019, black people committed 1,489 homicides, whereas Bangladeshi people committed just 103 homicides, and Pakistani committed just 77 homicides. Thus, black people committed 14.5 times as many homicides as Bangladeshi people and 19.3 times as many homicides as Pakistani people. In London, the black population is 4.9 times as large as both the Bangladeshi population (1,088,640 vs 222,127) and the Pakistani population (1,088,640 vs 223,797) (according to the United Kingdom Census 2011 [archived]). This means that the black homicide rate is approximately 3 times the Bangladeshi homicide rate and 3.9 times the Pakistani homicide rate in London, despite the fact that the Bangladeshi and Pakistani population have lower pay and higher unemployment.
Just like the United States and the United Kingdom, blacks in Canada have far higher crime rates than Asians. Also like the U.S. and U.K., these disparities in criminality cannot be explained by SES disparities. For example, in 2014 the incarceration rate for blacks was far higher than the incarceration rate for every group of Asians despite having higher median incomes:
- According to the 2011 Canadian Census [archived], the median income for blacks (24,281) was higher than the median income for South Asians (23,340), Chinese (21,201), Southeast Asians (23,087), West Asians (17,656), and Korean (16,408). Asian groups that had higher median incomes were Filipinos (27,954) and Japanese people (29,112).
- A 2014 analysis [archived] in the Oxford Handbook of Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration reported that the incarceration rate for blacks in 2011 was 3.36 times higher than the incarceration rate for the general population. The incarceration rate for Asians, South Asians, and West Asians were 0.45, 0.25, and 0.92 times (respectively) as high as the incarceration rate for the general population. This implies that the incarceration rate for blacks is 7.5, 13.4, and 3.7 times the incarceration rate for Asians, South Asians, and West Asians, respectively. In 2011, blacks were substantially more likely to be incarcerated than South Asians and West Asians despite having a higher median income.
Similar patterns can be found in 2004:
- A 2004 report [archived] by the Correctional Service of Canada found that there were 773 black people incarcerated in the Federal Canadian Correctional System. “The Black offender group consisted of 773 participants. The Asian offender group was composed of 277 participants (88 Asiatic, 88 South East Asian, 50 South Asian, 45 Chinese, 4 Korean, and 2 Japanese offenders).” According to the 2001 Canadian Census [archived], the population sizes for blacks, South East Asians, South Asians, and Chinese were 662,215, 198,880, 917,075, and 1,029,395 (respectively). Thus, the offender rate for black people was 2.6, 21, and 26.7 times (respectively) the offender rate for South East Asians, South Asians, and the Chinese people.
- The Asian population at the time was at least 3.5 times the size of the black population (662,215 blacks vs at least 2,319,325 Chinese, South Asian, South East Asian, Korean, and Japanese people). This means the offender rate for blacks was at least 9 times the offender rate for Asians overall (there were 2.8 times as many black offenders as Asian offenders, despite the Asian population being at least 3.5 times the size of the black population).
- According to the 2001 Canadian Census [archived], the low-income incidence rate for blacks (50.6%) was lower or comparable to every Asian group: Chinese (55.2%), South Asian (50.3%), Filipino (47.9%), Southeast Asian (50.7%), West Asian (57.7%), Korean (72.5%), and Japanese (49.4%).
In conclusion, we find that blacks tend to have far higher rates of criminality than many other non-white racial groups in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. This is despite the fact that they have superior or similar SES levels compared to many of these racial groups (the one exception may be single-mother household rates for which blacks do perform significantly worse). So we should be skeptical that SES is a significant explanation of black criminality, since these other low-SES groups do not have comparable rates of criminality.
Note: as stated above, one metric of SES on which blacks perform significantly worse is family structure (specifically, rates of single-mother households and out-of-wedlock births). This may play a stronger role in explaining black criminality. Again, I will revisit this topic in a later post.
This post has argued against explanations of black criminality based on systemic racism or differences in SES (aside from differences in family structure). I have merely provided some reasons to be skeptical of such explanations. In a future post, I review academic studies that attempt to more rigorously examine the relationship between SES and black criminality.