Clarence Page wrote about hate crimes in one of his columns a while ago. Mr. Page was quoting statistics on hate crimes from the FBI that showed that white against black hate crimes were about 3 times more prevalent than black against white. He went on to state that since Blacks make up only about 10 percent of the population, they are being victimized out of proportion to their numbers. He had his statistics wrong, though, because it's not the number of victims that drive the number of hate crimes, but the number of perpetrators. That is, victims don't ask to be victimized, but perpetrators force them to be. So you would expect, given equal hate in this country and perfect crime reporting, that the ratio of racist hate crime would equal the percentage of the population, which is more like five times more white on black than black on white hate crimes.
That got me to thinking about perceptions of racism in this country, where blacks and whites consistently disagree about the amount of racism. Blacks consistantly report through surveys etc. that racism is more prevelant and more significant than whites. This led to the following thought experiment: let's say that there is a certain rate of racism, and let's say it is constant between the two races. Let's also assume for the experiment that whites outnumber blacks by a ratio of 5 to 1 (roughly true for the USA), and that whites and blacks have equal power to commit a racist act. What would each group experience with regard to the frequency of racist acts?
On average, blacks would experience 25 times the amount of racist activity directed against them that whites would experience, even though each race would perpetrate the same number of racist acts per person, simply because there are 5 times more whites than blacks (5 times more acts, but only 1/5 the people to experience the acts). And when it would come time to report the prevalence of racist acts, whites would report only one fifth the number of racist acts that blacks would, simply because whites would spend much more time in white-white interactions where no racists acts would occur. The disparity is caused simply by the relative size of the two populations, and not any bias on either races' part. Each races' experience would be different and equally valid from its standpoint. Additionally, if you asked how important race was to your life, whites would tend to say unimportant since, on average, only 1/6 of their interactions would involve race, but blacks would tend to say very important since, on average, 5/6 of their interactions would involve race.
Again, all of this disparity is caused by the disparity in population, and says nothing about the underlying amount of racism or poor racial perception. It's not that "whites don't get it" or that "blacks are hypersensitive", but that each group is reporting accurately on their different, equally valid experiences.
Let's throw in a look at how general meanness (not race related) can get factored in as well. Let's assume there are 5 million whites, 1 million blacks, and on average each white and each black commits 5 racists acts a year and 5 mean acts a year. At the end of the year, there are 25 million anti-black racist acts, 5 million anti-white racist acts, and 30 million general mean acts. Therefore, on average, each member of a given race will experience in a year:
White: 1 racist act against, 5 mean acts against.
Black: 25 racist acts against, 5 mean acts against
So what would each races perception of how important general meanness is versus racism? Blacks would of course say racism is more important than meanness, while whites of course would say just the opposite. The truth? They occur at an identical (at least in this experiment) rate. So who's right and who's wrong? Both are right, since they are reporting from their own experience, and from their own experiences, each group is correct. Remember, all of this comes from whites outnumbering blacks, and having racism and meanness exist.
Of course the real world is is different than the purity of such simple statistics and assumptions, but I really do think that it tells us something about the perception of racism being tied to the underlying population sizes. The larger the disparity in populations, the larger in the difference in how each population perceives racism.
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BR>This page last updated 12 December 1998.
Contents copyright Kevin Murphy 1998. All rights reserved.