Nazis Can’t Calculate: Reflections on Racism, Crime and the Illiteracy of Right-Wing Statistical Analysis


White supremacists never cease to amaze me.

So, for instance, ever since my essay from a few days ago went up — the one where I broke down, in painstaking detail, how the notion of a widespread black-on-white crime spree is a statistical absurdity — I’ve been receiving one after another e-mail, in which case after case of crimes committed by blacks against whites are chronicled, usually with links to the news items discussing said crimes.

So far, I’d say, I’ve received about 150 such news items, all from people who insist that these incidents somehow trump the hard data presented in my original column. So if the data say, and they do, that less than seven-tenths of one percent (0.7 percent) of blacks will violently victimize a white person this year and that only about one-quarter of one percent (0.25 percent) of all whites will be violently victimized by a black person this year, that isn’t what matters. What matters is that some little old lady in so-and-so community was beaten by a black man, and so, therefore, we know black people are dangerous, to be avoided, and possibly separated from white people altogether.

If the data say, and they do, that only a ridiculously infinitesimal percentage of whites will be murdered by a black person in a given year (as we’ll see below), this doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was a white family in so-and-so place, who were killed by two black home intruders, and therefore, we know that black people are dangerous, to be avoided, and possibly separated from white people altogether.

That these incidents — awful though they are — do not a social trend make, seems to escape some people. They can send me hundreds, even thousands of cases like this (and indeed, they seem to literally scour the news for any such item, believing each of them to carry some great social weight), and still, the conclusions they would have me, or others, reach from these crimes are ludicrous. After all, for every one of these violent crimes committed against a white person by a black person, there will be at least 4 such crimes committed against whites by other whites. And yet, racists never seem to think much of this; they don’t assume that white criminals represent white America generally, or that their depredations against their fellow whites say anything about the inherent pathologies of their white brothers and sisters.

White-on-white crime (which term doesn’t even exist in our racial or criminological lexicon), is far more prevalent than its black-on-white (or even black-on-black) equivalent, numerically speaking, and yet to white nationalist types, we should draw no conclusions from this at all. White folks can commit mass murder, kidnap, rape, sexually mutilate, or even cannibalize people (like Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance), and represent no one but their solitary selves. Charles Manson is never expected to serve as a stand-in for white folks writ large.

But every black criminal — whether James Edwards, accused of shooting Australian baseball star, Chris Lane, in Oklahoma last week, or the two black teens who beat the white World War Two veteran to death in Spokane a few days later — is somehow taken as exhibit A in the racist fantasies of America’s neo-Nazi set. White criminals and deviants are just bad individuals. Black ones are indicative of a broader cultural or genetic truth.

That people like this consider themselves members of a master race, possessed of superior intellect, and yet cannot understand basic statistical concepts, or understand the difference between anecdote and larger sociological reality, is the very definition of irony.

To say that white people’s lives are endangered by black folks, as though it were some widespread social truth, is to ignore the facts in the service of one’s prejudices and paranoiac fears. According tothe most comprehensive data set ever compiled regarding homicides in America, which breaks perpetrators and victims down by race and ethnicity, the numbers of black-on-white homicides, and the percentage of homicides by African Americans that involve white victims are both much smaller than one would expect. And although interracial homicide in either direction is quite rare, the fact is, any given black person in the U.S. is about 3.2 times as likely to be murdered by a white person as any given white person is to be murdered by someone who is black.

Here are the relevant facts.

First, let’s just look at the overall offending numbers for homicide, and the relative racial homicide rates that these numbers produce.

In 2010, there were 6,216 murderers who were black in cases where the offenders race was known, which represented 51 percent of all known-race offenders.

There were 4,423 murderers who were white in cases where the offender’s race was known, which comprised 36 percent of all such offenders.

There were 1,357 murderers who were Hispanic that year in cases where the offender’s race was known, which represented about 11 percent of all such offenders.

Applying these relative racial percentages to those murderers whose race was not known (4,251 in all) (a reasonable projection), would produce an additional 2,168 black murderers, 1,530 whites, and 468 Latinos.

In all, this means that in 2010, of all homicide perps:

8,384 were black
5,953 were white
1,825 were Hispanic

There are two ways of looking at these numbers. First of course, and importantly, they suggest that only a ridiculously small percentage of African Americans will kill anyone in a given year. In 2010, since there were 36.4 million African Americans in the population, for there to have been 8,384 black murderers (and even if we assumed that each of these were separate and unique persons — i.e., there were no repeat offenders, which is unlikely), this would mean that at most, about 2.4 one-hundreths of one percent of all blacks committed homicide that year. So to fear black people generally, given numbers like these, is truly absurd.

Of course, on the other hand, one could argue — and no doubt white supremacists would — that these figures clearly indicate that blacks are much more homicidal than whites. So, while the per capita homicide offending rate for blacks may be only 0.024 percent, the rate for whites is much smaller: only about 0.0033 percent, or 3.3 one-thousandths of one percent (5,953 white murderers as a percentage of 194.5 million whites). This means that the homicide offending rate for blacks is about 7.3 times higher than the rate for whites.*

But although this figure seems at first glance to confirm the white racist fears about black violence — at least, relative to white violence — the fact is, it is precisely this fact (the much higher black murder rate relative to the white rate) that ultimately torpedoes their arguments about the risk of interracial crime. Here’s why.

When one looks at the interracial homicide data, one notices that in 2010, there were 704 homicides involving black perps and white victims and 413 homicides involving white perps and black victims. (There were also 105 black-on-Hispanic homicides and 115 Hispanic-on-black homicides, which are generally mischaracterized as black-on-white and white-on-black in FBI data, but which are treated separately in the state-by-state data tallied by the Wall Street Journal). Again, at first glance, these numbers seem to confirm the white racist argument: blacks kill whites more often than whites kill blacks, both numerically and as a percentage of interracial homicides. According to these numbers, there are 1.7 times more black-on-white homicides than the opposite, and out of 1,117 interracial murders involving whites and blacks, 63 percent of them involved black perps and white victims.

But here is where the white racist argument falls apart.

The fact is, precisely because the black homicide offending rate is so much higher than the rate for whites (as noted above, 7.3 times higher), we should expect the black-on-white homicide numbers to bemuch higher than they were, relative to the white-on-black numbers.

If whites were (and we were) 69 percent of the population in 2010, population availability alone would suggest that we should have been as many as 69 percent of the victims of black murderers (especially if we were being targeted by black offenders, as implied by white supremacists), and that of the 4,765 victims of black killers, whites should have been 3,288 of them, rather than 704.

And if blacks were 12.9 percent of the population in 2010 (and they were), population availability would suggest that 12.9 percent of the victims of white killers should have been black, and so, of the 3,896 victims of white murderers that year, blacks should have been 502 of them, rather than 413. In both cases, the interracial homicide numbers are lower than random chance would predict, but especially so for black-on-white homicide.

Indeed, given population availability and general differences in homicide offending rates there should have been at least 6.5 times more black-on-white homicides than white-on-black homicides in 2010, but in truth, there were only 1.7 times more. In all, there were at least 2500 fewer black-on-white homicides than might have been expected based on random chance, and the ratio of black-on-white to white-on-black homicide was only about one-fourth as large as would have been expected. Instead of black-on-white homicides comprising 63 percent of 1,117 interracial murders involving whites and blacks, random chance would have predicted that they should have comprised 87 percent of a much larger number: 3,790.

And frankly, this is a conservative estimate.

After all, whites and blacks don’t encounter each other at rates that are strictly commensurate with our relative population percentages. So because of residential isolation from one another, for instance, whites are not 69 percent of the persons encountered by blacks, and therefore available to be the victims of black murderers, and likewise, blacks are not 13 percent of persons encountered by whites, and thus available to be our victims either. The best estimates we have for real-world encounter rates are that about 57 percent of persons encountered by blacks will be white and only about 3 percent of persons encountered by whites will be black. If we apply these numbers to the interracial homicide data, the results are truly startling and completely eviscerate the white supremacist and racist argument about how “disproportionately dangerous” blacks are to whites.

So, using 2010 data, and applying the rates of interracial encounter noted above (3 percent and 57 percent), this means:

Of 4,765 victims of black killers, random chance would have predicted 2,716 white victims (4,765 x .57); and,

Of 3,896 victims of white killers, random chance would have predicted 117 black victims (3,896 x .03).

In other words, given relative racial offending rates and rates of interracial encounter — the two factors that determine the likelihood of interracial victimization — random chance would predict that there should have been about 2000 more black-on-white homicides in 2010 than there actually were, and about 300 fewer white-on-black murders than actually occurred. In other words, whites killed more blacks than should have been expected and blacks killed fewer whites than should have been expected: exactly the opposite of the white nationalist argument. In terms of ratios, because of relative offending rates and rates of interracial encounter, there should have been 23 times more black-on-white homicides than white-on-black homicides in 2010, but in fact, there were only 1.7 times more of the former than the latter. Meaning that in 2010, black-on-white homicide happened only 26 percent as often as random chance would have predicted, and the ratio of black-on-white to white-on-black homicide was only one-fourteenth as large as should have been expected!

Furthermore, whites are far more likely to be murdered by another white person than by a black person, and yet, white racists apparently don’t fear whites, generally, on the basis of this truth. So, in 2010, for instance, whites killed whites 3,252 times: 4.6 times more than the number of whites killed by blacks. Why no generalized fear of white people then? Why assume that black-on-white murder (which occurs about one-fifth as often) somehow portends some larger social trend, while white-on-white murder is merely random, individual, and signifies nothing more important, socially, at all? Why? Because racists are racists, that’s why.

And functionally illiterate. So, there’s that.

Oh, and there’s this, and it’s sort of a big deal. Remember, white supremacists are hoping to scare white people into believing that they are at serious risk of homicidal victimization at the hands of black people. But what are the facts?

Well, to begin, 704 whites killed by blacks, as a percentage of the white population in 2010 (194.5 million) was a whopping 3.6 ten-thousandths of one percent (0.00036) of all whites who were killed by a black person that year. This comes out to about 1 white person out of every 277,000 who were killed by a black person in 2010. Quite the risk, that. Clearly sufficient to justify a generalized fear of being interracially murdered by a black person…

Oh, except, here’s the problem: any given black person is far more likely to be interracially murdered by a white person than that. 413 blacks killed by whites, as a percentage of the black population in 2010 (36.4 million) was 1.1 one-thousandths of a percent (0.0011) of all blacks who were killed by a white person that year. This equates to about 1 black person out of every 91,000 who were killed by a white person in 2010.

In other words, although interracial homicides are incredibly rare in either direction, any given black person in the United States is 3.15 times more likely to be killed by a white person than any given white person is to be murdered by a black person.

Just to put the risk of a white person being murdered by a black person in perspective, that risk is one-fifth the risk of dying while out for a walk, and we’re about 2.5 times more likely to die from choking, more than twice as likely to die from post-surgery complications, and about 60 percent more likely to die from falling down stairs.

Likewise, we are more than 40 times as likely to die in a motor vehicle accident, about 3 times as likely to date a supermodel, 4.5 times as likely to strike it rich on Antiques Roadshow, and far more likely to die from falling in the bathtub.

Which is to say, rather than fearing black people, white folks should — statistically speaking — stop bathing, stop driving, gather up all the dated nicknacks in our basements and call our local public television station, never climb stairs, and go on a completely liquid diet that won’t involve chewing.

If only Nazis would do that: starve themselves and stay in their homes, where they can’t do damage to the rest of us.

The world would be a far better place.

*A note here about why the black homicide offending rate is so much higher than the rate for whites. Contrary to the arguments of many on the right — and especially white nationalist types — that the disproportionate rate of violent crime (and especially murder) is due to something either genetic or cultural about black folks specifically, the facts say otherwise.

According to the research by actual criminologists (which is to say, not by racist internet trolls), socioeconomic variables explain the difference between white and black violence rates, and where economic conditions are comparable between whites and blacks, there are no significant racial crime differences. In fact, the correlation between economic variables and crime are remarkably consistent from one society to the next. Evidence gathered from more than thirty countries has found that race and ethnicity have far less to do with crime than these environmental factors.

Please note, it is not that poverty in the abstract causes crime — or is, in and of itself, even the main correlative factor for crime — but rather, the kinds of conditions associated with extreme poverty that are to blame. Although whites in the U.S. also suffer poverty, black poverty is more severe and more likely to correlate with crime. Seven out of ten poor whites live in stable, mostly non-poor neighborhoods, while eighty-five percent of the black poor live in mostly poor areas. Blacks are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than whites (less than half the poverty line), and six times more likely to live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods. Indeed, three-quarters of persons living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods are people of color (powell, john, 2001. “Socioeconomic School Integration,” Poverty and Race Research Action Council Bulletin, 10: 6, November/December: 6).

Looking specifically at homicide rates, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that crowded housing was the key to higher murder rates among blacks in the U.S. When census tracts with similar incomes, population density and housing conditions are compared, racial murder rate differences evaporate, (Pope, John, 1995, “Murder linked to dense poverty,” New Orleans Times-Picayune. June 14), because the poorest neighborhoods have similar homicide rates, no matter their racial composition.

A 1990 meta-analysis of twenty-one different studies on homicide, covering thirty years of research found much the same thing: among all the factors positively correlated with higher homicide rates, two of the most significant were unemployment rates and community resource deprivation.

Indeed, racial crime gaps in the U.S. are largely a reflection of geography. Since blacks are more concentrated in cities, which have higher crime rates no matter their racial makeup, the crime rate among blacks is skewed upwards; but this has nothing to do with any genetic or cultural predisposition to crime. In large measure, because cities are more crowded, and because crowded areas tend to increase levels of anonymity amongst residents, and chip away at the levels of organization in a neighborhood, they will be the site of elevated levels of crime. Adjusting violent crime rates for levels of urbanization alone cuts the racial disproportion in half, with economic conditions explaining the remainder.

In fact, absent a litany of socioeconomic factors, there is no substantial independent relationship between a community’s racial composition and its homicide rates (Johnson and Chanhatasilpa, 2003: 92). Although the homicide rate among “middle class” blacks is higher than that for middle class whites, the reasons for this have nothing to do with race: middle class blacks tend to live in much closer proximity to poor communities, tend to be substantially less well off than middle class whites, and are thus exposed to more negative social influences than whites of their same general class group (Ibid, 107).

The role of social and economic environment and community conditions in determining crime rates is particularly evident among juveniles. A comprehensive analysis of homicide and robbery data, which looked at the importance of such things as race, poverty, family disruption and unemployment in determining crime rates in these categories, found that black male joblessness explained black family disruption, which in turn was highly related to black murder and robbery rates, particularly for youth.

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