For many years, I was skeptical about accusations of racism in the criminal justice system. Yes, I knew that blacks comprised only about 12 percent of the population yet represented 33 percent of the prison population. But those data alone did not prove that police are racists or that courts are tougher on blacks than others. The relevant criterion is not the percentage of the population, but the percentage of the criminal population, and when you consider the higher rates of offending among African Americans, the seemingly disproportionate rates of incarceration make sense.
Well, some countered, if you look at who winds up on death row, you can see the racism at work. Less than half of murder victims in the U.S. are white, yet a 2003 study found that 80 percent of inmates on death row had killed white people. I wasn't convinced. It might be evidence of racism, or it could be that when people kill others of their same race, they are more likely to know them. These could be crimes of passion and therefore less likely to draw the death penalty. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2005, nearly 78 percent of blacks were murdered by other blacks, and nearly 70 percent of whites were killed by other whites.