The Suppression of Crime Statistics on Race and Ethnicity: The Price of Political Correctness

Article excerpt

In several media commentaries, I have stated that crime statistics based on race or any other variable should be collected if they shed light on the issue of crime. I have made these assertions with the recognition that such information could be used by criminal justice agencies to justify discriminatory practices or for other purposes harmful to minorities. I also acknowledge that classifying people according to race is a difficult exercise, given that many people are of mixed ancestry and that there are differences of opinion regarding what constitutes a "race". In the United States, for example, about 75 percent of African Americans have at least one white forbear (Stern 1954).

Furthermore, setting aside the classification problems, the substantial intra-racial differences in crime and violence around the world far exceed any overall interracial differences (Roberts and Gabor 1990; Gabor and Roberts 1990). The Phillipines, for example, have very high levels of violence as reflected by one of the world's highest homicide rates, whereas other "oriental" countries (e.g., Japan) have low rates of crime and violence. Similar dramatic intra-racial differences can be found when comparing European or African countries.

It has also been argued that any racial differences in officially recorded crime reflect discriminatory treatment by criminal justice systems, as opposed to genuine behavioural differences between the races. According to this line of argument, the race-crime link cannot be explored satisfactorily due to insoluble methodological problems in identifying real racial differences in crime.

Finally, opponents of the routine collection of crime statistics on race assert that it is unfair and impractical to collect information on the race of suspects. Race, they say, is an ascribed characteristic that cannot be changed and therefore has no relevance to social policy. While we can improve an individual's vocational skills and economic opportunities if we find that crime is linked to economic conditions, there is little we can do if we learn that a person's race is a risk factor in crime.

In the worst-case scenario, therefore, collecting and publishing race-based crime data can:

(1) Lead to a crackdown on certain racial minorities by the criminal justice system and create conflict among racial or ethnic groups; (2) Distort the true contribution to crime of different groups due to racial and ethnic biases in official crime data and the misclassification of suspects by criminal justice personnel; and,

(3) Waste justice system resources if race and ethnicity turn out to be largely insignificant correlates of crime, or because there appear to be no affirmative measures we can take if such factors are significantly related to crime.

At first glance, these arguments seem compelling. Upon closer scrutiny, however, they are alarmist and paternalistic. Benevolent political leaders, academics, and criminal justice personnel who oppose collecting statistics in sensitive areas feel they have the right to define the boundaries of the public's knowledge of crime, even where public security is at stake.

My concern in this paper is more with the principle of public access to information on security matters than with the need to publish race-based crime data in particular. At the end of this paper, I will briefly address the type of data that I feel should be collected. I will try to show that the justifications for suppressing such information are moral and political, rather than grounded in research. I also start with the premise that, in a free society, the burden rests with the censors to show that providing the public access to information has a high likelihood of producing significant social harms. I will now examine, in turn, the principal arguments of those opposing the collection and publication of race-based crime statistics.

(1) Publishing race-based crime statistics will increase friction between various racial or ethnic communities and justify harassment of minorities by the police

The growing ethnic/racial friction in Canada's urban centres has arisen in the absence of official race-based crime statistics. …