Gutmann: Numbers don’t support fear of black men

August 30, 2013 


— We often hear statistics that suggest it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to be suspicious of Trayvon Martin, that it is reasonable to be fearful or suspicious of young black men in general.

Who doesn’t know that a much larger percentage of black men commit violent crimes than white men? That a much higher percentage of black men are in jail than white men?

Suppose we look at it another way.

In 2010, 5,430 African-Americans were arrested in our country for murder. Even if we assume they were all men, and that they were all between the ages of 15 and 30, that’s only 0.11 percent of the population of young black men. About one tenth of one percent.

Of course, murder is not the only violent crime. So let’s add in arrests for forcible rape (6,300), robbery (62,020) and assault with a deadly weapon (136,400). If we again assume all perpetrators were males ages 15-30, which is obviously not the case, the rate would be 4.4 percent.

OK, you say, but single-year arrests don’t tell the whole story. Aren’t most young black men already in prison for violent crimes? In 2011, 4,377 per 100,000 black men ages 18-29 were in state or federal prison. That’s 4.4 percent. Only about half of black prisoners were there for violent crimes.

Do these numbers surprise you? Shouldn’t they make all of us stop and think? What do they mean?

They mean that if we see a young black man and fear violence, chances are overwhelming that our feelings are unjustified. The young man we are looking at is overwhelmingly likely not to be up to some violent purpose. We are almost certainly unfairly profiling that young man.

This is not to diminish the unacceptably high rates of crime in some African-American communities, but generally fearing young black men is clearly — by the numbers — not reasonable.

So why is there such a strong cultural presumption that we have reason to fear? Why did George Zimmerman look at a black teenager walking and talking on his cell phone and presume not only that he was a criminal, but that he was dangerous enough to require following with a loaded gun?

White men are imprisoned for rape and other sexual assaults at twice the rate of black men. Yet white men aren’t all assumed to be rapists until they prove otherwise, and it would be grossly unfair if they were.

The overwhelming number of young black men do not commit violent crimes. It is imperative that we examine our presumptions otherwise and acknowledge our biases. Only then can we begin to change the way we respond.

Karen Gutmann


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