On Crime and Systemic Racism

Terrance Hunsley
Terrance Hunsley

The protests in the US and around the world have succeeded in raising awareness of police brutality and systemic racism. Social media are replete with strong opinion in support and against the protests.  

Our opinions derive from our experience and I am reminded of times in my career when I have been directly involved with systems that worked to prevent discrimination, or do themselves discriminate. It seems to me that both the criminal justice systems and the societies in which they function need to consider that what is measured as crime is culturally defined. It may also be culturally distorted.

While I was director of the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) in the 1980’s we assumed the operation of the Court Challenges Program with funds provided by the federal government.  The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had just been adopted. We knew that the first cases pursued under the charter could set up precedents which would guide future interpretation of the law.  We did not want Charter principles to be established by corporations such as tobacco companies seeking a right to advertise freely.  So we funded cases whose interpretation would support the Charter objectives of protecting individual and social rights and countering systemic discrimination. Through several iterations, the program ran off and on for a couple of decades. It was reinstated in 2017.  Although we had some success, it was evident that the justice system is very resistant to change. Attitudes, prejudices and preferences are deeply embedded, even if not visible, and they reflect the decisions made by society over many years. 

Later in my career I was appointed director of the International Centre for Prevention of Crime (ICPC). This agency works with the UN Crime Commission, national justice and police organizations, and city governments. I learned a lot about crime in that job, and what kind of crime that justice departments and statistical agencies focus on. I also spent a lot of time with law enforcers and observed the unconscious systemic biases within that profession.

So in a video circulated recently on the internet, perhaps sponsored by a pro-gun group, a black man repeatedly quotes a statistic.  He rants that half of the murders in the US are carried out by black people, who represent only 13% of the population.  I could not blame someone who, watching this video, might be convinced that the problem is not US society, nor racism,  but the black people themselves. 

Even had he pointed out that 57% of the victims of homicide in the US are black people, it wouldn’t have countered the impression that they are simply a violent people.

But a statistic is like a single ray of light illuminating a tiny sliver of a landscape. 

To start with, violence and robberies and car theft and gang fights tend to take place in poor areas, and in the US, that’s where many black people live. In some of those neighbourhoods, crime is the only substantial employer.  And if your dad is in prison, as over a million black dads are right now, your chances of getting out of that neighbourhood are pretty low. And if your school is low quality (because US schools are primarily funded by the local community), your chances of a good education and upward mobility are low. And if you are put in prison for stealing a car, when you get out, chances are you will have learned how to move up to a more lucrative crime.  So the system perpetuates the situation. In the US, the prison industry is private, and they have powerful lobbies, so regulations and standard operating procedures of the police and justice system keep them full. The US spends about 2.5% of GDP on police, courts and prisons. Canada spends about 1.1%. 

Canadian incarceration rates also show disproportionate numbers of blacks and indigenous peoples. Thankfully, our incarceration rates are less than a fifth (per 100,000 population) of the US rates. We also have systemic racism built into our criminal justice system, but because we use the criminal justice system less, the degree of racist oppression is proportionately lower. And since being charged or incarcerated has a strong negative effect on a person’s life trajectory,  the effect of entrenching inequality is also less.  That also shows up in comparisons of inequality and social mobility in Canada and the US.


But another dimension of crime reporting is even more telling. Pretty much all countries focus their attention; their statistics,  their justice systems – on what I would call street crime – violence, robberies, theft. Street crime is what the more privileged members of society want most to repress. It primarily involves the young, the poor, the addicted … so the odds are set in advance, who will be caught in the net. Policing could be colourblind (it usually isn’t) but that would still maintain the status quo and therefore repress the disadvantaged minorities.

Street crime is the kind of crime most available to poor and marginalized people. And that is what we hear about on a daily basis. That is what the news media and criminal justice systems focus on.

But a fair amount of evidence suggests that street crime represents only a minority of the crime that takes place in most societies.

So what about the crimes of the privileged?

Consider white collar crime:

It is estimated that (in the US) approximately 36% of businesses (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2016) and approximately 25% of households (NW3C, 2010) have been victims of white-collar crimes in recent years, compared to an 8% and 1.1% prevalence rate of traditional property and violent crime, respectively (Truman & Langton, 2015).Apr 1, 2017 

White-collar crime has been associated with the educated and affluent ever since the term was first coined in 1949 by sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who defined it as “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation.” (Google)

But even with those numbers, much of white collar crime is not reported, and is invisible. People who are caught stealing from their employers may lose their jobs, but it is unlikely that a crime will be reported and a criminal charge laid. Insider trading is rarely caught or reported, but goes on regularly. 

Consider organized crime 

Organized crime is for the most part, only visible at street level. There are thousands of charges for possession or selling of drugs, and blacks and hispanics in the US are disproportionately charged. But the tops of crime organizations are not disproportionately racial minorities. 

Moreover,  illicit acts to steal money from bank accounts or credit card accounts are often not reported as individual crimes. Banks, for example, are reticent to reveal the full scope of these activities. As well, phone scams,  email scams, false websites, data attacks and breaches, are seldom reported as individual crimes. 

False information, and hate-promoting social media activity, are often crimes, but hardly ever taken up by the justice system.

Consider large scale corporate crime.

Think of an industry that is not rife with scandals – automakers, banks and financial institutions, engineering firms,  mining companies, global brand name companies. These firms commit crimes – bribery, false representation, fraud, financial crime, and many others, often as part of their normal business plans.  They negotiate financial penalties with governments. 

A person who kills another person may be charged with as many as ten separate crimes related to the same act – carrying a weapon, assault, inflicting injury, aggravated assault etc,  But in contrast, hundreds of bribes and millions of dollars of criminal actions,  will be wrapped up in one charge.  Remember the case of SNC Lavalin, with one person being charged (notably not the CEO) and one payment, covering ten years of illegal activities by a corporate conglomerate. 

So the information we receive daily about crime does not reflect the true nature and extent of criminal activity in society.  It reflects street crime. And many of those charges would not take place if we treated drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime. 

While the statistics on crime and incarceration rates are lower in Canada than in our southern neighbour, we cannot excuse racism in Canada. We have racist attitudes, racist jokes, racist rationalizations. Many in the baby boom generation, including me, had a childhood deeply embedded in discrimination and distrust, of colour, language and religion.  But most of us were able to gradually recognize our culturally-derived prejudices and free ourselves from them.  Hopefully our younger generations can grow up free of those negative attitudes. 

We need to recognize that much of street crime is a symptom of embedded social and economic marginalization.  We need to also recognize that the criminal activities that have the greatest impact on society, that suck the economic vitality from it and undermine equality,  have been disguised as prosperity.

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