What is a “Serious Crime”?


Randall G. Shelden


This past summer a three-part series called “Slavery in the Third Millennium” was posted on the web site Black Commentator (see http://www.blackcommentator.com/141/141_slavery_1.html). In this series I provided an analysis of recent incarceration trends, showing how black Americans are imprisoned at a rate much greater than ever before.  Moreover, other methods of punishment seem to target this group, such as the war on drugs and the return of the “chain gang” and similar methods of punishment.  (Interested readers can consult my web site for a detailed version of this, complete with references.)

            I received an e-mail from a man in Omaha who apparently did not like what I said.  His only criticism, however, was framed this way: “Remember that young black males commit serious crime out of all proportion to their numbers.  You should feature this fact more prominently.”  This is a common reply to charges of racial bias within the criminal justice system.  I responded by pointing out that in order to properly address this question you need to define “serious crime.”  If you mean the FBI's “index crimes” then you must be referring to arrests, which are more a measure of the ability of the police to respond.  While it is true that blacks are arrested for homicide at a rate much higher than their proportion in the population, consider the total number of people killed in a given year.  One serial killer can account for quite a large number and these are almost always white. Then too, consider McVeigh and how many he killed.

            Then, too, there are several serious flaws in the reporting of crimes in the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports.  Among other problems is the fact that under the category “persons arrested” the emphasis is on “persons,” so that someone could be arrested for committing several different crimes, but only the most serious crime is tabulated.  For example, someone could be arrested for burglary and rape or burglary and murder (not to mention several other crimes, such as trespassing).  In the final tabulation of the annual statistics, only the murder will be reported.  More importantly, if several people are killed by one person, it will be reported as one arrest for murder. Thus, if 20,000 people are arrested and charged with murder during a year, this does not mean 20,000 people were murdered.

            Another problem with the term “serious crime” is that, as noted above, it refers to what the FBI categorizes as “Index Crimes.”  There are eight of these: murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.  By far the greatest number within this category has always been larceny-theft. By the way, this category includes shoplifting, which has always been the most common offense.  So when the media issue a report, as it does several times a year as the FBI releases both preliminary and final crime figures for the previous year, the words “serious crime” is invariably used.  Rarely does anyone bother to point out that under the heading of “serious crime” murder and shoplifting are placed within the same category.

            Quite often reports about “violent crime” or “crimes against the person” appear in the news media.  What is often overlooked is that within this category one of several “Part II offenses” is included.  I am referring here to the category known as “other assaults,” which some reports (e.g., Juvenile Court Statistics) call “simple assaults.”  These crimes involve behaviors that do not involve any serious injury and no weapons are used.  Normally, these are ordinary fights amongst juveniles, public disturbances where fighting takes place or just ordinary shouting matches where someone threatens to hurt another person. Arrests for these sorts of behavior have grown considerably over the years, largely as a result of changing law enforcement priorities (e.g., “zero tolerance”).  Although arrest rates are highest for blacks, various self-report and victimization studies reveal that in actuality both blacks and whites are about as equally as likely to engage in this sort of behavior. Thus some form of racial bias seems obvious in arrest statistics for this offense.

Now if by “serious crimes” you include corporate and white collar crimes, then the white population dominates – especially white males (the lone exception recently was Martha Stewart and what she did pales in comparison to Enron and others). The estimated cost of these crimes tops $1 trillion per year.  It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 are killed from corporate crimes alone (there is a crime category, rarely mentioned in the corporate press, known as “Corporate Homicide”).  It has always been curious that these crimes are not included in the FBI’s annual report.  A trillion dollars and 100,000 deaths are not exactly trivial, especially compared to shoplifting. Here is another example of a class bias – crimes against corporations are called “serious” while crimes by corporations are not.

Returning to my critic’s original comment, it is not disputed that young black males have an arrest rate for some serious crimes (mostly violent index crimes) higher than their proportion in the population.  This alone, of course, does not explain their overly high incarceration rate. This has been attributed mostly to their high arrest rate on drug offenses, which reveals a serious racial bias in the drug war itself, since every major survey on illegal drug use has found that whites are far more likely to use them than blacks.  The question I posed to my critic was a simple one: why are young black males disproportionately arrested for these crimes?  If they are more likely to actually commit violent index crimes, what are the reasons?  He never responded to my query.

It is beyond the scope of a single commentary to address this issue in depth.  One thing can be said, however, and that is that every serious examination of this issue has pointed to the environment within which young black males grow up as a major cause of crime.  Here’s just one point (among many) to consider: it has often been pointed out that most of the index violent crimes (especially murder) are intra-racial in that both the victims and the offenders are black.  More than 50 years Gordon Allport wrote a book called The Nature of Prejudice where he pointed out that one (among many) consequences of experiencing the many forms of prejudice is to commit crimes against people of your own race, often correlated with self and in-group hatred – which is normally displaced anger and aggression.  This is the result of being the victim of so many forms of discrimination and racist practices.


© 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.