Liberty Matters

Is Systemic Racism the Reason Crime Rates Differ Among Races?

This essay explores the link between systemic racism and crime. To do this, we’ll first explain what we mean by systemic racism, then we’ll consider factors that tend to foster criminal behavior, and explore what might cause those factors to disproportionately affect protected minorities.
Definitions of systemic racism are vague. This is useful politically but less helpful for analysis. Systemic racism in this essay means that treating people differently based on race is ingrained in the fabric of society, either by laws or social custom. To be systemic, these behaviors or outcomes must be pervasive, and to be important, their influence must be large. “Pervasive” and “large” are subjective, and I will leave those decisions to the reader.
In what follows I consider behavior, not feelings or thoughts. A racist police officer who targets members of a particular race is a problem, but if that same officer does not act on his racist feelings, then his racism is harmless. This is important, because feelings and thoughts do not respond to laws or social norms as much as behavior does. Similarly, outcomes matter, but intentions do not. A law that creates incentives to have children out of wedlock is harmful, regardless of whether it was passed with the intent of reducing widespread poverty among members of a racial group.
Factors affecting criminal behavior do seem to be correlated with race. For example, protected minorities tend to have less formal education than Whites or Asians, and more schooling tends to mean less criminal behavior, even after controlling for other factors.[1] Few argue that government-funded, public K-12 education in the US is successful in producing individuals able to function well in a competitive labor market and an evolving society. This is indeed a systemic problem. Part of the problem is that students are tied to the school in their neighborhood. Escaping to a private school or a public school in a different area is costly at best. As a result, public schools face little competition and have few incentives to improve.
Evidence shows that students in poor schools can achieve high levels of performance if placed in a better school. Thomas Sowell found that students in charter schools in low-income Black neighborhoods were about six times more proficient in mathematics than those of the public school located in the very same building![2] He points to the much stronger influence of teachers’ unions in the public schools as the main reason for the performance gap.
This is not an isolated result. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that “… from 2015 to 2019, the typical charter school student in our national sample had reading and math gains that outpaced their peers in the traditional public schools (TPS) they otherwise would have attended.”
Forcing public schools to compete for funding is one potential solution. Rather than funding schools, society should fund students. Under this approach, governments would give each student a voucher redeemable only for education. Fierce union resistance has prevented progress on such legislation. The government’s policy of funding schools rather than students contributes to this systemic problem, which disproportionately affects protected racial minorities.
Fortunately, the systemic problem of funding schools rather than students may be eroding. Parents want school choice, and progress has accelerated since the school closures during the government’s reaction to COVID-19. Funding students instead of schools is no panacea. It is, however, an important step in ensuring equal opportunity in education.
Barriers to Employment
Minimum wage and occupational licensing laws serve as barriers to protect current workers from competition from new entries into the labor force. Many minimum-wage advocates sincerely intend for these laws to help, but the result is a systemic policy that harms protected minorities more than Whites and Asians. High unemployment erodes job skills and denies new entries into the labor force the opportunity to develop skills in the first place. Minimum wage laws reduce employment opportunities and affect low-skilled workers disproportionately. Those workers tend to be protected minorities. Before minimum wage laws, Black unemployment levels approximated those of Whites. Since the advent of minimum wage laws, though, Black unemployment has been about double that of Whites. One can make a good case that minimum wage laws are systemically racist, and to the extent this contributes to higher crime rates among protected minorities, it traces to poor government policy, however well-intended.
Another presumably well-intended government policy that limits employment opportunities is occupational licensing. Many skilled trades require a license. Obtaining such licenses can be expensive and time-consuming, sometimes requiring formal training that is better obtained through apprenticeships. Licensure requirements serve as a barrier to entry.
The War on Drugs
Federal and state authorities have criminalized recreational drug use. Whether rational and well-intended or not, this war on drugs often turns supporters of the police into opponents. In The State Against Blacks,[3] Walter Williams argues that harsher sentences for such non-violent offenses contribute to the higher minority incarceration rates.
Enforcing laws against recreational drug use necessarily increases the number of tense encounters between law enforcement and suspects. To the extent that protected minorities commit more crimes of this type, the frequency of violent escalation increases. This contributes to the persistent media narrative that police target them. However, Roland Fryer of Harvard University found that police are less likely to use lethal force against Blacks. Christopher Ferguson and Sven Smith found that “… overrepresentation among perpetrators of crime explains incarceration disparities to a greater degree than does racism in the criminal justice system.” Whether current drug policy is good or not is debatable, but again, the law has created a system that affects protected minorities disproportionately.
The Collapse of the Family
Jason Riley identifies what, to me, is the most important factor in the disproportionate number of protected minorities incarcerated. It is not poverty, nor lack of education, nor unemployment. Those are merely symptoms of the root cause. Riley writes that “Black violent crime rates were significantly lower in the 1940s and ‘50s, when the Black population was significantly poorer than it is today, and when racism inside (and outside) the criminal-justice system was rampant and overt.” He continues, “Our jails and prisons aren’t teeming with people from intact families.”  The breakdown of the family is the problem.
Thomas Sowell shows that the collapse of the family structure among Blacks is correlated with unemployment, too. In Social Justice Fallacies, he writes that for more than 25 years, the poverty rate of Black married couples has always been in single digits. For comparison, the poverty rate of Americans collectively has always been in double-digits.[4] Walter Williams adds that the absence of positive role models and inadequate parental guidance can perpetuate through generations.
The destruction of the family results in poverty, increased drug use and suicide rates, poor education achievement, unemployment, and, inevitably, criminal behavior. Trends in the data give little cause for optimism. Very likely, tomorrow’s problems springing from this will be worse.
The decline of the Black family surely tends to increase minority crime rates, but is this a systemic problem? To me, the answer is obviously yes. The two-parent family is also becoming progressively less common among Hispanics and Whites. This suggests that forces not unique to the Black community are driving these trends. This is indeed a systemic problem, but it is hard to call it racist if it affects all races.
Rather than ask whether these forces are racist, a better question is, “What is the cause of family breakdown?” This has no simple answer, but government policies, perhaps well-intended, are certainly a factor. Aid to children of broken homes and other welfare programs reduce the cost of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, and many programs pay more to single parents with more children. This creates incentives for single parents living in poverty to have still more children. Many programs reduce funding as family income rises. This effectively serves as an additional income tax, reducing work incentives.
Government programs are not the only force threatening the two-parent household. Changing societal norms play a large role, too. In decades past, single-parent homes were relatively rare and faced a social stigma. As the number of broken homes and out-of-wedlock pregnancies grew, the social stigma attached to such situations began to wane. Today, about thirty percent of families have only one parent, and little stigma remains as a deterrent. We know that the proportion of Black children living in two-parent households is only about half that of Whites, and we know that children in single parent homes tend to commit more crimes. This is a systemic problem, but given that it affects all races, calling it systemic racism is unwarranted.
In this essay I have defined systemic racism as treating people differently based on race that is ingrained in the fabric of society, either by laws or social custom. The evidence suggests that systemic racism does exist, that it traces in large part to government policy, and that these policies do create the conditions that foster criminal behavior. These policies may be intended to help protected minorities, but intentions do not matter to their victims.
[1] Lochner, Lance and Enrico Moretti (2004). “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports.” The American Economic Review, March. pp. 155-189.
[2] Sowell, Thomas. (2023). Social Justice Fallacies. Basic Books.
[3] Williams, Walter. The State Against Blacks. McGraw-Hill. 1982.
[4] See also Kearney, Melissa S. (2023) The Two-Parent Privilege. How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. University of Chicago Press.