Heather MacDonald’s recent essay in City Journal is a classic example of what our British friends call “over-egging the pudding.” Here’s her title: “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?” And then the subhead: “No: the high percentage of blacks behind bars reflects crime rates, not bigotry.” Note the implication: if incarceration-rates-by-race match crime-rates-by-race, then the criminal justice system is not racist.
But that’s silly. First, incarcerations rates are just one metric among many; and second, questions like this can’t be settled by assuming the existence of an on/off switch: Racist/Not-Racist. MacDonald makes a serious rhetorical mistake in her very first paragraph: she quotes Senator Obama’s claim that blacks “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, [and] receive very different sentences . . . for the same crime,” and then addresses the second claim only with fifteen-year-old data and fails to address the third claim at all.
MacDonald does a pretty good job of defending her claim that incarceration-rates-by-race reflect crimes-committed-by-race, so why can’t she leave it at that? Instead, she determines to use evidence on that one point to justify the absurdly sweeping claim that the American criminal-justice system is utterly free from racism. Let’s let our claims be commensurate with the evidence we provide, please.