The Bogus Hispanic Crime Wave

by Alexander Cockburn, March 11, 2010

Nothing more easily elicits roars of assent across a good slice of the political spectrum than the hoarse alarms that wave after wave of brown-skinned illegals continually flood across the border, plunging neighborhoods and whole cities into an inferno of crime, overwhelming cops and prosecutors, clogging the justice system, cramming the prisons.

Lou Dobbs is pondering a political run powered by a thousand pop-eyed commentaries catering to this fear. “A third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens,” he shouts. Glenn Beck screams about “an illegal alien crime wave.” The panic is by no means confined to the nutball right. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, launching his commendable plan for a National Criminal Justice Commission last year, invoked the specter of organized Mexican gangs that supposedly threaten “hundreds” of American cities. “There are an estimated 1 million gang members in the United States, many of them foreign-based,” Webb wrote. “Every American neighborhood is vulnerable. Gangs commit 80% of the crime in some locations. Mexican cartels, which are military-capable, have operations in 230+ US cities.”

It’s all nonsense. There’s no crime wave swollen by brown gangbangers to city-destroying proportions. If you want a lucid walk through the data you can turn to … The American Conservative magazine, whose March issue features a cover story by the magazine’s publisher, Ron Unz. There’s a photo of a tattooed gangbanger, and the title -“HisPANIC,” then the subtitle: “The Myth of Immigrant Crime.”

Yes, this is the magazine co-founded by Pat Buchanan, whose physical form I last clapped eyes on at the Republican convention in the Houston Astrodome in 1992, roaring to a climactic fist-shake against the black and brown hordes who had recently rioted in Los Angeles: “We must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country!”

Unz comes to statistical analysis of populations and crime data with decent credentials — he majored in theoretical physics at Harvard, then went on to physics graduate study at Cambridge and Stanford before swerving into very successful software work on Wall Street and now a busy life in Silicon Valley, fostering ideas on both sides of the political aisle. I should add that I count him as a discriminating friend, supportive of left ventures such as CounterPunch as well as The American Conservative, whose tiller he took over in 2007.

At the heart of Unz’s essay is the matter of age-weighting. Most serious crime is committed by young males, especially those between 18 and 29. Now, the age distribution of Hispanics and whites in the overall population is markedly different. The median age for Hispanics is around 27; for whites it’s above 40. But to get useful comparisons you need to look at the relative criminality of Hispanics and whites of the same age; you need to sift out immigration-related offenses (more than half of all federal prosecutions) from state-prosecuted crimes such as robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault and theft; you need to review comparative data state by state, since there are very significant regional differences in the way justice systems are administered, hence significant variations in incarceration rates.

Unz’s bottom line: “Hispanics have approximately the same crime rates as whites of the same age.” Since poverty and crime have an intimate connection, and since America’s Hispanics are advancing economically, the Hispanic crime rate will most likely drop more. An important further point: Unz uses Census figures for all the states, with a total estimate in 2008 of around 45 million Hispanics. But there’s a widespread view that illegal immigrants are significantly undercounted. So if there are, as some “brown tide” scaremongers allege, 25 million unreported Hispanic illegals above Census numbers, then the true Hispanic crime rate is 35% lower than Unz estimates. Almost beyond the shadow of a doubt, white crime rates nationwide are significantly higher than Hispanic ones. Senator Webb needs to refocus his Threat Assessment.

But what about Los Angeles, allegedly the dystopian HQ of immigrant crime, half Hispanic in population, many of them poor and illegal? All crime rates in LA, Unz explains, have been dropping for two decades. Homicides plunged 18% last year. Violent crime is roughly the same in LA as in Portland, Oregon, the whitest major city in America, the same as it was in the lily-white LA of the early 1960s. But the gangs? Ah, yes. You see, the feds dole out hundreds of millions each year for gang prevention. Pay a city to find a gang problem and the city will oblige.

Unz had a question for me: “Pro-immigrant advocacy organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in this exact subject area. So if my theories were correct or even just remotely plausible, wouldn’t such a vast army of paid researchers have long since discovered the same evidence and blasted it out to the four corners of the earth via a very supportive mainstream media?”

My answer: remember that mainstream NGO liberalism — starting with Rockefeller and particularly saturating every environmental foundation — is built on the bedrock of demographic panic about the pullulating poor, particularly the brown and black and yellow hordes. Every billionaire setting up his foundation almost invariably has population control in his mandate. Shoulder to shoulder with hysteria about immigrant crime waves rides fear of the fecund darker races. So I think we can surmise an instinctive racist bias among foundation liberals, their likely belief that Hispanics do commit more crimes and hence their desire to steer clear of all data that they fear might ratify this instinct.

Now, among the names that cause Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt to twitch with reflexive irritation, the name Cockburn can most certainly be included. Hardly had I published Unz’s conclusions in the Nation magazine than Pollitt dashed to her laptop to pound a peeved commentary.

It's “annoying,” she snapped, “when conservatives take credit for work liberals have been doing for much longer and far more seriously. It's even more irritating when a leftist [that's AC] is so eager to bash liberals, he joins the parade.”

Then Pollitt listed a number of papers from the liberal end of the spectrum on the topic of Hispanics and crime, plus some testy comments from academics working in this field, claiming that Unz was reinventing the wheel and that what the American Conservative was trumpeting on its cover was old news, known to all, or at least to liberal communicators such as Pollitt, though not Cockburn, all too eager to take yet another whack at the pwogs.

The trouble is that Katha — to judge from this piece at least — doesn't actually know anything about the topic of Hispanic crime, therefore doesn't know what's widely known, what's not widely known, and what's completely mistaken. Even the very limited research she references is on the topic of “immigrant Hispanic crime” not “overall Hispanic crime,” and these studies are sometimes are highly misleading for that reason. For example Katha quotes Rubén Rumbaut at UC Irvine as saying patronizingly on the phone to her that “I'm amused by [Unz's] 'discovery' of something I've been writing about since the last millennium.” She encourages Nation readers to peruse a 2007 paper by Rumbaut. Actually, this paper claims — wrongly — that Mexican crime rates skyrocket 700% in the generation after immigration. According to a Rumbaut chart, American-born Hispanics are 250% more likely to be imprisoned than American-born whites — a result which would be grim news for America's future if it were correct. Using this construct Nation readers can discover where Tom Tancredo may have got his ideas about Latino crime rates.

But Katha seems to have been in too much of a hurry even to look at the studies she cited as proof that “everyone already knew” exactly the opposite of what the studies actually claimed. Similarly, she cites Harvard's Robert J. Sampson as having had an op-ed in the New York Times a few years back, arguing that immigrant Hispanics had low crime rates. But this column didn't say anything about the much larger number of native-born Hispanics, a very different question.

Pollitt’s derision — buttressed by a couple of academics (not a breed renowned for intellectual generosity) about the supposed lack of originality of Unz's piece — is misplaced. As Unz points out, no one previously explored the age-adjustment or cross-correlation methods, even in the academic literature.

Let's go to the all important general point: just how well known are the facts about Hispanics and crime? Anecdotally, I should say that my report on Unz’s TAC piece, scrutinized by a few Nation editors — presumably well informed on social issues — did not elicit the swift rebuke that I was flogging a dead horse.

It's true that some academic specialists have generally been aware that Latinos didn't have especially high crime rates (though as far as I know nobody's previously used Unz's particular methodologies to make the point directly and quantitatively.) Even the volume of academic literature seems extremely scant, relative to the magnitude of the subject involved. Over the last decade, there have been a couple of books by Ramiro Martinez dealing with the subject, and a relatively small number of journal articles, few of which are very direct or explicit. But there's a huge difference between academic specialists being generally aware of this, and perhaps occasionally communicating their results to other academic specialists via turgid journal articles and books, and this information getting out to a wider public audience.

As a Nation reader responded crisply to Pollitt: “You are wrong to suggest that a few articles here and there have successfully debunked the Latino crime wave myth. They have not done anything of the kind except perhaps through those few who read the articles. The myth is still pervasive not only because of the blatant racists out there but because it has not effectively been debunked in academia and the media… Outside of your rarefied circles, their are many, many people who believe Latinos are the worse criminals in our society and they will continue to do so until and as long as racism comes down from the wealthiest layers of society. That is what you should be reporting on rather than telling us that we all know Latins aren't all criminals because someone, somewhere wrote in some obscure article that they aren't. Please come down out of your ivory tower and learn what racist viewpoints the average person has and why they have such viewpoints.

“As far as I can tell,” Unz says, “there's been virtually no effort to get the information out to a wider audience. I'm pretty sure I've almost never seen anything mentioned in any of the six newspapers I've read daily for the last 15 years, or in any of the numerous opinion magazines to which I subscribe. If you go on the websites of the major liberal pro-immigrant/pro-Hispanic public advocacy organizations ranging from the National Immigration Forum to La Raza you'll find almost no mention of this claim anywhere, let alone any study or report highlighting it. If you try using Google, you'll find very, very little that suggests otherwise.

“In fact, one of the very few individuals who's directly specialized in this field is Ramiro Martinez, cited by Ms. Pollitt, who's written almost the only books directly on the topic of Hispanic crime. I sent him a copy of my article, which he said he liked, and we traded several notes. He actually agreed with me how unfortunate it was that so little of the public had been informed of these important facts. My claim is certainly not that the academic specialists have been deluded, but simply that they, and the organizations sponsoring them, have done an extremely poor job of communicating their findings to the general public.”

Katha cites Sampson's op-ed in the NYT, addressing crime rates of immigrant Hispanics. Meanwhile, there have been a large number of major NYT news stories focusing on murderous Latino gangs, Latino prison inmates, and Latino social pathologies which have provided exactly the opposite impression, let alone what's daily on Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and similar media outlets. Given how much money Ford, Soros, et al., spend, maybe during all these years they could have issued one study or report entitled “Hispanic Crime Rates” arguing that Hispanics have approximately the same crime rates as whites, and sent it out with a big press release.

There are at least about 50 million Hispanics in America, and they're projected to become 25% of the total national population. Whether they have high crime rates or low crime rates is a huge issue for the future of America, and a very large fraction of the public wrongly believes they have high crime rates. As Unz wrote to me, “All my article really does is prove that rocks fall downward — but that may still be a huge revelation to lots of people. I'd be very curious if Ms. Pollitt can find any sentence in any article which she's ever written or which The Nation has ever published by someone else saying something like 'Hispanics seem to have approximately the same crime rates as whites of the same age'.”

Probably naívely, I thought it encouraging that a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan should devote its March cover and a substantial number of pages to a persuasive assault on right-wing hysteria about the supposedly astronomic crime rates of Hispanics in America. But aside from my own piece — I think the first commentary on Unz’s work — The American Conservative’s cover story raised no interest on the left. However, reaction across the larger political spectrum reaction on the right swiftly gave the lie to Pollitt’s claim that this was all stale news.

Slate listed Unz’s piece as “one of the top pieces of the day, saying “Ron Unz takes on, and takes down, one of the far-right's most cherished doctrines.” Tyler Cowen, New York Times economics columnist, called it “An excellent article, full of good information.” Heather Horn, announced on the The Atlantic Monthly/Atlantic Wire that “Unz debunks the high Hispanic crime rate myth… the piece requires a full reading.”

Over at the libertarian Reason Magazine Rodney Balko called it “One of the more courageous endeavors I've seen from a political magazine in a long time.” USA Today called attention to it.

The Ron Paul movement, fresh from its remarkable victory in the CPAC presidential straw poll, was quite supportive. Not only did the Ron Paul News website prominently highlight Unz’s article and mention it in a twitter feed to their supporters, but LewRockwell.com, a popular website closely associated with Ron Paul, republished large excerpts of the piece, and followed it up with several blog items focusing on the ongoing debate surrounding the piece. A couple of the leading anti-Immigrationist publications struck back with lengthy and detailed critiques.

Unz responded to these with specific rebuttals published on the TAC website, where his original article can be found.

Sizemograph

Kind of symbolic. Contrast America at its most optimistic, thumping into my inbox on a regular basis: “ADD FOUR INCHES,” “ROCK HARD,” “MAKE HER MOAN” with the tenth most popular article listed on the Nation site last week — “Ten Things You Can Do to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint.”

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