Know Your Enemy: Heather Mac Donald

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If you believe that the criminal justice system is racially biased, you need to know Heather Mac Donald.

She’ll mess with your mind and make you either up your politico-cultural game or admit you were wrong. What worries me is that so few on ‘our’ side can, or bother to, go toe to toe with her. Just about every one of her pieces is a statistical and analytical tour-de-force, while we liberals tend too often to mouth liberal pieties like inside jokes. Just yesterday, I was listening to Angela Davis address the Commonwealth Club (sorry. speech not posted) on my car radio. I agreed with nearly everything she said, but they were dissatisfying lefty bromides, one and all. Racist criminal justice system. Slavery was bad. War in Iraq. The crowd whooped and hollered, but where was the beef, the analysis, the facts? Forgive me Angela, patron saint of the streets, but Mac Donald would have had you for lunch.

According to her byline, Mac Donald “is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute”. She’s also among America’s harshest critic of blacks. Harshest and most devastating; unlike most of the right-wing blovio-sphere, home girl does her homework. And for her, 2 and 2 always equal black deficiency, whether in morals, culture or crime. Trouble is, she comes loaded for bear.

I read her religiously—even have a Google alert set up in her honor—much the same way one looks for dismembered limbs and blood stains at an accident scene while knowing one shouldn’t. One will only get upset if successful and MacDonald upsets me every time because with every piece, she sets out to prove that the only problems blacks face are of their own making.

She doesn’t mess around. Her City Journal latest is a devastating response to the liberal shibboleth that the criminal justice system is racist and designed to criminalize and incarcerate blacks en masse. No, says Mac Donald. Black incarceration rates are a simple function of rampant black crime. She writes:

The favorite culprits for high black prison rates include a biased legal system, draconian drug enforcement, and even prison itself. None of these explanations stands up to scrutiny. The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime. Insisting otherwise only worsens black alienation and further defers a real solution to the black crime problem.

Racial activists usually remain assiduously silent about that problem. But in 2005, the black homicide rate was over seven times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 1976 to 2005, blacks committed over 52 percent of all murders in America. In 2006, the black arrest rate for most crimes was two to nearly three times blacks’ representation in the population. Blacks constituted 39.3 percent of all violent-crime arrests, including 56.3 percent of all robbery and 34.5 percent of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.4 percent of all property-crime arrests.

The advocates acknowledge such crime data only indirectly: by charging bias on the part of the system’s decision makers. As Obama suggested in the Martin Luther King debate, police, prosecutors, and judges treat blacks and whites differently “for the same crime.”

Let’s start with the idea that cops over-arrest blacks and ignore white criminals. In fact, the race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. As long ago as 1978, a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests—a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports.

It gets much worse, and much more thoroughly documented from there. Read it for yourself to test out your own beliefs about black crime and the racism of the criminal justice system but a few points stand out. However much crime blacks commit, Mac Donald refuses to consider for even a moment that racism itself is the (yeah, I’ll go there) root cause of black crime. Either blacks commit more crimes because they’re inherently violent and criminal or there’s another reason—a bedrock racism that segregates, undereducates, and marginalizes them in every way come to mind. Is it so hard to imagine that a hated group responds with disfunction? For Mac Donald—yes, it is.

In her favor, though, is the attention she pays to internal dissent from the conventional wisdom within the black community itself, a voice which liberals tend to muffle so as to continue the war against the criminal justice system. To do so, however, is also to muffle the voices of those law-abiding blacks in lawless communities who have to live with the carnage. She writes:

But for all the popularity of the view that the system is to blame, it’s not hard to find dissenters who believe that individuals are responsible for the decision to break the law. “My position is not hard,” says public housing manager Matthew Kennedy. “You don’t have to do that crime.” Kennedy supported President Bill Clinton’s controversial 1996 “one-strike” rule for public housing, which allowed housing authorities to evict drug dealers and other lawbreaking tenants on their first offense. “I’m trying to protect the good people in my community,” Kennedy explains. “A criminal record is preventable. It’s all on you.” Kennedy has no truck with the argument that it is unfair to send ex-offenders back to prison for violations of their parole conditions, such as staying away from their gang associates and hangouts. “Where do they take responsibility for their own actions?” he wonders. “You’ve been told, ?Don’t come back to this community.? Why would you come back here? You’ve got to change your ways, change the habits that got you in there in the first place.”

Though you’d never know it from reading the academic literature, some people in minority communities even see prison as potentially positive for individuals as well as for communities. “I don’t buy the idea that there’s no sense to prison,” says Clyde Fulford, a 54-year-old lifelong resident of the William Mead Homes, a downtown Los Angeles housing project. Having raised his children to be hardworking, law-abiding citizens, Fulford is a real role model for his neighborhood, not the specious drug-dealing kind posited by the “social ecological” theory of incarceration. “I know a lot of people who went to prison,” Fulford says. “A lot changed they life for the better. Prison was they wake-up call.” Is prison unavoidable and thus unfair? “They knew they was going to pay. It’s up to that person.” What if the prisoners hadn’t been locked up? “Many would be six feet under.”

It’s a sad day when Mac Donald is the one to shine a light on the complexities of life in the inner city, but good on her for doing so (even though she does so for all the wrong reasons). Work-a-day blacks are the ones living in a war zone, while we liberal agitators focus most of our attention on those making their lives so difficult.

Starting with black crime and not with racism, is always the major flaw in Mac Donald’s work. Still, she remains an opponent to both learn from and take oh so seriously. Thankfully, Mother Jones is among the few progressive organizations which work as hard as Mac Donald does to disprove the notion that blacks have no one to blame but themselves. It’s just that we’re going to need a lot more folks doing work at this level to drown out the Mac Donalds.


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