On many occasions during my 10 years as a reporter in this city, I have gone to the homes of black victims of crime, interviewed their families then asked to use the telephone, only to find that they didn't have one. In the poor neighborhoods of this city -- areas that experience the highest rates of crime -- it is not unusual to find people who cannot afford a telephone.
Thus, a new study by the U.S. Justice Department, which determined through telephone interviews that white District residents are twice as likely as blacks to be victims of violent crime, appears fatally flawed, yet capable of far-reaching damage.
Already, high-ranking D.C. police officials, long at odds with the Justice Department over techniques for compiling crime statistics, are calling the report an effort to incite political action against a black home-rule government through "white fright."
In a city where the racial atmosphere is already charged by dramatic demographic changes, the report has left the impression that whites are being targeted because of race.
If past practices can serve as a guide, whites can be expected to react by further segregating themselves through purchases of guard dogs, window bars and alarm systems, while maintaining their views of blacks as threats.
The Justice Department report found that white District residents were victims of violent crime at a rate of 110.2 per 1,000 whites aged 12 and older, compared with 57.4 per 1,000 black District residents.
Yet, the total number of black victims in this city that is predominantly black is far higher.
Consider the following statistics from the Metropolitian Police Department.
Last year, 147 blacks were victims of homicides, compared with 22 whites; 301 black women were raped, compared with 65 white women; 3,401 blacks were victims of aggravated assault, compared with 729 whites.
The closest comparison between white and black victims of crime comes in the category of robbery: 3,401 blacks were robbed last year, compared with 2,205 whites.
The apparent concern for the safety of whites in the nation's capital is not new, but it has been growing since President Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in 1981.
The Justice Department study, entitled "Criminal Victimization of D.C. Residents and Capitol Hill Employes," was requested by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) two years ago, after what he called "a whole series of incidents of crime" against Senate staff members.
This added interest in crime when whites are victims has become a depressing reality of life in the District of Columbia, where feelings of helplessness and hopelessness have become the order of the day in many neighborhoods. Indeed, nearly 48 percent of the violent crimes in the city go unreported.
But let something happen to a white person, especially if the suspected perpetrator is black, and the wheels of justice turn with uncommon speed. Several studies of the nation's criminal justice system have demonstrated that, across the country, conviction rates are higher for blacks accused of crimes against whites, and the punishment more severe.
While there is no death penalty in the District of Columbia, it is a fact that where one exists, a black is more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering a white, than is a white for murdering a black.
Because most crimes are economically motivated, it is quite likely that there has been an increase in crimes against affluent people -- including whites -- who move into neighborhoods undergoing transition. Here, a telephone survey might work.
But there are better ways to determine the reality of crime in this city: Anyone who has ever spent an evening in an emergency room of D.C. General or Greater Southeast hospitals, or visited the D.C. Morgue, or the city's victims' compensation office, or city funeral homes or the homes of those people who make up the bulk of those Saturday night police reports knows, at a mere glance, who's getting the short end of the stick in this town.
Starting today, Courtland Milloy's column will appear Tuesdays, as well as Sundays, in the Metro section. Milloy's column appears Thursday in the District Weekly section of The Post.