Armed with a Loaded Footnote

How the right rationalizes racial disparity in policing

Tim Wise


Possibly the only thing worse than racism is the pseudo-intellectual way in which some seek to justify it.

For instance, consider the standard conservative response to those of us who argue the criminal justice system is the site of significant racialized unfairness.

Whether the subject is racial profiling, stop-and-frisk rates, arrest rates, rates of incarceration, or the rates at which blacks are shot by police, those on the right are quick to dismiss disparities in these areas by claiming that because rates of criminal offending are higher in black communities, disparities in law enforcement are only to be expected.

This line of reasoning has been the default position, for instance, of conservative scholar Heather MacDonald, whose book The War On Cops has been merely the latest in her years-long attempt to rationalize away any and all disparities in the justice system.

According to MacDonald — who previously made this case so as to defend the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies, and who now uses the same logic to justify disproportionate use of force against blacks by police — if rates of arrest, incarceration, and the rates at which blacks experience police force are consistent with rates of criminal offending, there is no evidence of racism.

But there are several problems, both theoretical and concrete, with these arguments.

First, although black arrest and incarceration rates for crimes like murder, aggravated assault, rape and robbery, do roughly mirror the rates at which blacks commit those crimes, arrest and incarceration rates for other offenses (especially drug offenses) suggest a significant disproportionality, above and beyond rates of black offending.

In other words, even using the standard of analysis preferred by the right, there is still evidence of bias in the justice system.

As I have explained elsewhere, once one compares the best estimates we have of drug usage rates, with the rates at which whites and blacks are arrested for drug possession, there are roughly 160,000 blacks each year who are arrested, above and beyond what their rates of offending would otherwise…



Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)