Saturday, March 1, 2014

What identitarians don’t know about race and class

This is the almost-final-draft of a section from a book about social justice warriors, identitarianism, and mobbing. For more information and links to other chapters, see How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

The history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is a history of black people selling black people to white people, so if there should be racial guilt, the guilt should be shared. The US Congress has formally apologized for slavery. So have leaders of Benin, Ghana, and Cameroon. But you wouldn’t know that from talking with identitarians because it doesn’t fit neatly in a race-based narrative. Nor will you hear about rich black slaveowners in the US like William Ellison, who was part of the richest 1% of the Old South’s slaveowners. Pointing out these facts is not denying the extreme racism of the past—it’s only acknowledging that the history of racism is distorted when identitarians assume race and class are intersectional rather than interrelated.

A few facts about race and class in the US:

1. Poverty

“Four-fifths of us who work for salaries or wages make less than $20 an hour. This is a poor country. We're a nation of the working poor, and it's something that people don't want to acknowledge.” —Dale Maharidge

For most of my life, I would've guessed the worst poverty in the US was in Watts, Appalachia, or Mississippi, but The Economist’s “The Poorest Part of America” notes, “Virtually all of the 20 poorest counties in America, in terms of wages, are on the eastern flank of the Rockies or on the western Great Plain.” The race of the people in the poorest part of the US? “It is largely white. The area does include several pockets of wretched Native American poverty, but in most areas the poor are as white as a prairie snowstorm.”

Tony Pugh wrote in “U.S. economy leaving record numbers in severe poverty”, “Nearly two out of three people (10.3 million) in severe poverty are white, but blacks (4.3 million) and Hispanics of any race (3.7 million) make up disproportionate shares. Blacks are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be in deep poverty, while Hispanics are roughly twice as likely.”

Regardless of race, Americans have very little hope of rising to a higher economic class. Economist Miles Cork found that among the major developed countries, only Italy and the United Kingdom have less economic mobility than the US.

2. The Death Penalty

If you believe the US is a classless society, race is clearly an enormous factor in the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the racial percentages for people legally executed for murder since 1976 are:

BLACK: 34%
WHITE: 57%

The races of the victims:

BLACK: 14%
WHITE: 79%

The victims are fairly representative of the US population, but the murderers aren’t. Someone who only considers race would conclude blacks murder more than whites, and blacks are more likely to get the death penalty than whites.

But there are other factors. John McAdams said, “It is clearly the case that blacks who murder whites are treated more harshly than are blacks who murder blacks. This looks like racial disparity if you assume that the circumstances are similar in the two cases. Unfortunately, it's vastly unlikely that they are. Most murders are among people who know each other. Murders done by strangers are much more likely to be regarded as heinous than are murders growing out of domestic quarrels, drug deals gone wrong, and such. It might seem reasonable to compare the punishment received by blacks who murder whites with the treatment received by whites who murder blacks. Unfortunately, while black on white crime is relatively rare, white on black crime is even rarer. There simply isn't an adequate statistical base to allow us to generalize about whites who murder blacks, which pretty much leaves us to compare the way the system treats blacks who murder blacks with the way it treats whites who murder whites. When we do this, we find some fairly solid-looking evidence that the system is unfairly tough on white murderers -- or if you prefer, unfairly lenient on black murderers. But even this finding is one we have to be skeptical about. Is the average black on black murder quite similar to the average white on white murder? Or are there systematic differences?”

So what might cause systematic differences? We know the rich rarely face the death penalty, regardless of their race—OJ Simpson faced life imprisonment, not death. In 2005, I did these calculations:

From “Capital punishment in the United States”: “Approximately 58 percent of the defendants executed were white; 34 percent were black; 6 percent were Hispanic; and 2 percent were from other races.”

From “New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty FAQ”: “Ninety-five percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them.”

The racial breakdown of poverty in the USA:

Asian American: 2.92% (or 3%)
Black: 25.17% (or 25%)
Hispanic: 22.68% (or 23%)
non-Hispanic White: 49.23% (or 49%)

So, remembering that nearly everyone who's executed is poor, let's line this up:

Percentage of people in poverty who are white: 50%
Percentage of people executed who are white: 58%

Percentage of people in poverty who are black: 25%
Percentage of people executed who are black: 34%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Hispanic: 23%
Percentage of people executed who are Hispanic: 6%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Asian: 3%
Percentage of people executed who are "other": 2%

The white and black poverty-to-execution ratio may be high because there's more crime in cities—a higher percentage of the Latino poor is rural. Or maybe Latinos commit fewer crimes of the sort that result in execution. Either way, I'm comfortable concluding this: the death penalty is based on class, not race.

Looking for more evidence, I found Attorney General John Ashcroft’s conclusion from a government study, "There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty."

When I wrote about this in 2005, someone identified as Carl left this comment:

For the past 20+ years I’ve worked in the criminal justice system—the past 8 years for a criminal defense firm, and the 14 years before that as a court clerk—I’ve done more death penalty cases than I want to think about (very few attorneys or judges ever want to do even one, and once you’ve done one, you never want to do another—they’re brutal on everyone involved), and can honestly say that in my experience (in California—your state may be different), the vast majority of DP felons (and felons in general) tend to be poor, poorly educated, and not very bright in general, with very poor social and coping skills. While there are occasional exceptions, they are damned rare.

The only notable exception I worked on was a wealthy woman who went even more psycho (she was bizarre at first, and went completely around the bend when her husband dumped her in favor of Next Year’s Model), and murdered the ex and his new wife in their beds. That one showed up on TV, both in the news and in movies-of-the-week, and she managed to avoid the death penalty, where poorer killers were far more likely to get Death. (Yes—you can probably guess the name).

In my experience (and hers, and OJ’s), money plays a far greater role than ethnicity.

3. The Drug War

"Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest." —Paul Wright, Prison Legal News

"The primary reason for this massive number of black men in jail is the War on Drugs. Therefore, if the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all." —John McWhorter, "How the War on Drugs is Destroying Black America"

Drug War Facts gives this picture for drug offenses: "Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were black, 50,100 (19.97%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white."

While the drug war is racially disproportionate, class still matters. From “Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the US Federal Courts”, a 2001 study by David Mustard: “Having no high school diploma resulted in an additional sentence of 1.2 months. Income had a significant impact on the sentence length. Offenders with incomes of less than $5,000 were sentenced most harshly. This group received sentences 6.2 months longer than people who had incomes between $25,000 and $35,000.”

According to “The rich get richer and the poor get prison”,  “Among those entering prison in 1991, about 70 percent earned less than $15,000 a year when they were arrested, and 45 percent didn’t have a full-time job. One in four prisoners is mentally ill, and 64 percent never graduated from high school.”