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Do You See a Kid or a Criminal?

By M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly / July 2, 1996



Carlos Williams (not his real name) is 12 years old, firmly built, and somewhat short for his age: a miniature replica of Sidney Poitier. Born into crushing poverty and turmoil, he virtually raised himself, making credible the conservative ideal of personal reliance and self-determination. To watch Carlos doing back flips on the ground is to recognize his athletic promise. But there is more to him than grace and muscle; he also has a penchant for art and a keen imagination. I call him Spunky.

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When I first met him, almost a year ago, Carlos expressed a desire to become a doctor. He had just been promoted to the sixth grade but, unfortunately, he could not read. With his mother's consent, I offered to sponsor him at a private school. That meant exchanging familiar surroundings for an unknown and often surly environment, and the requirement to begin at the fourth-grade level. The choice was tough, but Carlos made it with aplomb.

For Christmas, Carlos wanted a mountain-bike, which he received after decoding the clues in a holiday card. The treasure-hunt culminated when my husband vowed to take him riding through the trails of Monkton. In late April the two dashed for 18 miles, with Carlos making motorcycle sounds whenever he raced ahead.

Back home in Baltimore, later that day, my husband went looking for a hose to clean up the muddy bicycles while Carlos, wanting to be helpful, began to dismount them from the car. A rude shout from a neighbor in the next building interrupted his task: "Get off that car! Back off! Back off!" Before my husband had returned with the hose, minutes later, three squad cars had been summoned and Carlos was being interrogated by the police.

Every time I tell this story, I hear a similar response: "Pitiful but understandable; people are so fed up with crime, and so afraid of the young black men responsible for it, that you can't blame them for an overzealous reaction."

Was the man's behavior as sensible as those statements claim? Was it reasonable to see in Carlos a potential felon? No. Ignorance and mendacity surround the subject of black crime in general and of youth crime in particular. The facts are these:

*The proportion of violent offenses committed by blacks has been level for more than a decade. Since the mid-1970s, fewer than half of those arrested for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have been black. Starting in 1992, that proportion began to decline slightly.

*Although black crime has diminished, the likelihood of arrest and confinement for black men (and women) has increased since 1980. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, but they comprise 45 percent of those detained for crimes against persons and property. Michael Tonry, a highly respected professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, notes that incarceration rates for blacks in 1991 (1,895 per 100,000) were nearly seven times higher than those for whites (293 per 100,000), a disparity so wide that it cannot be fully explained without taking race into account: Being black raises the probability of punishment regardless of the seriousness of the offense.