Monday, August 5, 2013

The "Black Criminal:" The Moral Panic Created by the Media


There is a growing myth that equates Black people (especially males) with criminal activity.  Again this is a myth which is often perpetuated by the media.  For instance, Fox News’ commentator Bill O’Reilly, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, and even some Black “leaders” often discuss Black people in such a way where it implies that they are engaging in significant amounts of crime.  This myth or moral panic is further exacerbated by terms such as “Black-on-Black” crime, where it implies that Blacks are simply killing and robbing one another.

Let’s examine the “truth” of these issues.  In terms of crime, there are multiple ways one can look at it.  To begin, one can look at arrests.  As mentioned above, if one believes the media portrayal, it would lead you to believe Blacks were involved in so much crime.  According to the FBI (which collects data on all crime reported to law enforcement agencies in the United States), in 2011, Blacks made up 38% of the arrests for violent crime, while Whites made up 59% of the violent crime arrests.  While there are many problems with how the FBI measures race, the point is that it is clear that Blacks are not arrested for a majority of violent crimes.  In fact, of ALL crimes in the United States, Blacks make up majority of the arrests for only three offenses: homicide (49.7% Black; 48% White), robbery (55.6% Black; 43% White), and gambling (66.9% Black; 29.8% White).  As can be seen, the homicide arrest percentages are almost equivalent.  In all other offenses (other than these three), violent and nonviolent, Whites are arrested at a greater percentage of Blacks.  The question, then, is on what foundation are these claims of the Black criminal being advanced?

If you examine incarceration rates, Blacks make up 38% of those in state/federal prison (34% White) and there are slightly more Blacks in county jails than Whites.  Incarceration is not a good indication of crime because not all criminals are actually incarcerated; they can be sentenced to probation.  In other words, when commentators are looking at the amount of crime committed, they appear (maybe!) to be examining arrests.  I have provided a link at the bottom of this post to the FBI website, where you can see the racial breakdown of the arrests.

I make the argument that agendas are being advanced in the current media environment.  The main agenda is to create a moral panic of Blacks, where it is portraying this group as crime prone and dangerous.  “Black-on-Black” crime is a ridiculous term.  Bill O’Reilly mentioned that 91% Black homicide victims were killed by Black offenders in 2011.  This does imply a “Black-on-Black” crime issue.  However, he failed to mention that 83% of White victims were killed by White offenders….and we don’t go around talking about “White-on-White” crime.  Again, the former term is used as a way to enhance the negative views of Blacks.  Simply speaking, crime is committed in neighborhoods in which people reside….meaning Blacks are more likely to victimize Blacks and Whites are more likely to victimize Whites.  There is nothing more to this Black-on-Black crime phenomenon.

Bluntly speaking, the facts do not support any of these claims.  While Blacks do make a up a disproportionate percentage of arrests (percentage of arrests is greater than Blacks’ percentage of the U.S. population), the fact is that Blacks do NOT make up a larger percentage of arrests for almost all categories of criminal offenses.  Although we cannot stop people from making up lies or giving partial “truths,” we have to educate ourselves with knowledge.

Now that we know the truth about the facts, the question is that why does the media continue to portray Blacks in this way…..why create this false moral panic?  Why make it seem as though Blacks engage in a majority of crime when it is a blatant lie?

Bill O’Reilly’s segment on “Black-on-Black” crime and violent crime in the media

Uniform Crime Reports (FBI) for 2011, showing the racial breakdown of arrests

Bureau of Justice Statistics (race and state/federal prison incarcerated population)

Bureau of Justice Statistics (race and jail population)

FBI (Race of victims/Race of offenders for homicides)


  1. Kareem, with all due respect, and I respect you and your work a lot, some of you're arguments are off a little if you compared your numbers proportionately, after all Blacks make up only 13% of the U.S. population. Whites, I believe 75%. So, therefore, you should compare 38% to 13% (3x more) and 59% to 75% (less than). That's why, if you read most of the research, the authors indicate that Blacks are disproportionately arrested or involved in criminal activity. Even Obama used these words in his speech. To quote: "Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history."

  2. I agree with every point you made. In fact, in my post, I state that Blacks are disproportionately over-represented in crime stats. The issue, though, was that the media portrays an image of Black folks that implies that they are the this dangerous and criminal being, which is not the case. I wasn't talking in terms of proportion....I was talking about the actual picture of crime. The actual picture of crime shows that Blacks are not the dominant group committing offenses, even if they are arrested at a rate disproportionate to their percentage in the U.S. population. If media talking heads and political pundits would make your very point, in terms of proportion, there wouldn't be an issue. However, most don't speak in terms of proportion...they state that Blacks are criminals....Black crime is a problem....inner city crime (which is code for Blacks), and things of that nature. Given that most people don't go surfing the FBI website for the actual numbers, they don't automatically think of proportionate (or disproportionate). The fact is that although Blacks are disproportionately over-represented, they do not make up the majority of criminal arrests. Again, the purpose of this post was to dispel the myth that the media portrays...which is that Blacks are the criminal element of the United States.

  3. I agree that the media tends to exaggerate, over-react, twist words, and thrive on controversy. They have a product to sell. However, civil rights leaders and the African American community used the media to their advantage in the Martin case - there is clear and convincing evidence the media purposefully altered images, stories, and tapes of Zimmerman's call to the police to fuel outrage and favor the view of the African American community. Its a double-edge sword.