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Ever since the arrest of black Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the comments about the controversy by President Barack Obama, pundits have analyzed and reanalyzed what the incident says about crime and race in America.
On the July 26, 2009, edition of CNN’s State of the Union with John King , conservative commentator Bill Bennett urged that the Gates case not obscure larger social realities about crime.
"Well, I guess they are going to have a beer at the White House, the president has backed off from his ridiculous statement at the press conference. And, of course, Sgt. Crowley [the arresting officer, who is white] has shown himself to be an exemplary police officer. I hope if we get to so-called teachable moments and underlying issues, we'll get to some real problems. There obviously are wayward cops, not in this case, but let's talk about the fact that young black men in this country grow up 75 percent of the them without fathers. And if we talk about crime in America, let's remember that 4 percent of American citizens are black males, but they are 35 percent of murder victims. This doesn't come from the police. These are big and serious problems and I think this whole issue has obscured those more serious problems because of the ego of a Harvard professor."
The issue of single parenthood is a good one to investigate further, but for now we'll look at the second part of his assertion — that "4 percent of American citizens are black males, but they are 35 percent of murder victims."
On the first part of this claim, Bennett underestimated the black male percentage of the U.S. population by roughly one-third. The Census Bureau’s latest population estimate for the entire country, covering 2008, is 304,059,724. We determined the number of black men in America by taking the 2008 population estimate for African-Americans as a whole and multiplying that number by .477. (For various actuarial reasons, the Census Bureau found that 47.7 percent of African-Americans were male and 52.3 percent were female in 2007.) This left us with 18,631,063, or 6.1 percent of the U.S. population — a number notably higher than Bennett’s estimate.
(Because Bennett specifically mentioned "American citizens," we also tried an alternative calculation, subtracting from the total U.S. population the 11.6 million undocumented Americans estimated by the Department of Homeland Security. Calculated this way, the result is 6.4 percent, making little difference in the result.)
On the more important statistic of murder victimization rates, Bennett actually understated his own point.
According to Crime in the United States, a statistical survey published annually by the FBI, 6,223 black men were murdered nationally in 2007 out of 14,831 total murder victims, or 42 percent. The percentages for the two prior years were consistent — 42 percent in 2006 and 41 percent in 2005.
So, Bennett got the numbers wrong on both ends of his assertions, and not by insignificant amounts. But on the general point — that black men are murdered at disproportionately high rates — he is unquestionably correct. For this reason, we give his statement a rating of Mostly True.
State of the Union with John King, transcript , July 26, 2009
U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, 2008 Population Estimates data set
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2009, Table 6 , resident population by race, sex, and Hispanic-origin status, 2000-2007
Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Policy Directorate, "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2008," report released Feb. 2009
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2007, Expanded Homicide Data Table 1, murder victims by race and sex
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2006, Expanded Homicide Data Table 1, murder victims by race and sex
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2005, Expanded Homicide Data Table 1, murder victims by race and sex
Interview with Michael Rand, chief of victimization statistics, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, July 27, 2009.
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