Critics have shared anecdotes about Maoist “struggle sessions” in which White people are encouraged or even browbeaten into accepting complicity for the United States’s historical racism. These are just anecdotes, of course, but for the moment, let’s assume the worst: that they are both true and representative. There’s nothing wrong or unpatriotic about teaching the country’s flaws, sins and atrocities along with its virtues. It seems unlikely that we’ve completely purged the legacy of explicitly discriminatory practices from our culture and institutions in the decades since. It’s a far safer bet that those policies still inflict harm on marginalized groups, and still help the people they’ve always helped. But while it’s one thing to point out that White people still benefit from these policies, it’s quite another to say all White people today are complicit in those atrocities simply because they have the same complexion as the people who perpetrated them.
And yet the people who rail against collective White guilt often make very similar arguments about race, crime and the criminal justice system. That argument goes something like this: Racial discrepancies in stops, searches, arrests, police shootings and other areas of the criminal justice system aren’t evidence of a racist system because Black people commit crimes — especially violent crimes — at higher rates than other groups.
Superficially, there’s some logic to the argument. The problem is twofold: Black people don’t necessarily commit more crimes, and the people who commit the crimes often aren’t the same people who get stopped, searched, arrested and shot.
Take “stop-and-frisk” policies. Black people are much more likely to be stopped and frisked than White people. In New York, Black people made up 50 to 60 percent of such stops but just 25 percent of the city’s population. At the height of stop-and-frisk in New York, 85 to 90 percent of the people stopped were innocent of any crime. (The city curtailed the practice after a lawsuit, but the number was still 66 percent as of 2019.) Even the vast majority of the “guilty” were guilty only of minor drug possession, including cases that only became a crime because the police forced the suspect to empty his pockets — turning a noncriminal infraction (possession) into a criminal one (marijuana in public view). As for the policy’s original justification — cracking down on illegal gun possession — police recovered guns in less than 0.02 percent of more than 5 million stops. The statistics are similar in other cities where stop-and-frisk is common.
To defend a policy with that sort of record based on Black crime rates is to say that hundreds of thousands of innocent Black people should be okay with these humiliating searches simply because they belong to a demographic more likely to commit certain crimes. (Supporters of stop-and-frisk argue these policies make Black neighborhoods safer, though the evidence for that isn’t persuasive.)
Similarly, many of the same people who bewail collective White guilt also cite homicide statistics to defend the disproportionate killings of Black people by police. But we know from databases of police killings that police rarely kill to prevent a homicide in progress. Police tend to kill people during traffic stops and “welfare checks,” after escalation during stops or arrests, or in response to domestic disputes or mental health crises. To justify racial disparities in police shootings based on homicide statistics is to say that we should be okay with cops disproportionately killing one set of Black people because a mostly separate set of Black people disproportionately commits homicides.
With some discrepancies, the “Black people commit more crimes” argument isn’t even true. Surveys show that Black and White people sell and use illicit drugs at about the same rate, but Black people are far more likely to be arrested. We’re often told that this is because Black people are more likely to use drugs in public. But Black people are also more likely to be raided in their own homes when they’re suspected of committing drug crimes. A slew of studies has also shown that Black people are far more likely to be searched during traffic stops, even though searches of White people are as likely or more likely to produce contraband.
The argument that Black crime rates justify the racial disparities we see in the criminal justice system fails mostly because, in most cases, the disparities persist even after adjusting for crime rates. But the entire argument is also an assignment of collective guilt, every bit as much as telling White people they’re complicit in the sins other White people committed decades or centuries ago. Both are noxious and unfair.
But the damage wrought by the former is more palpable and pervasive than the latter. For White people accused of complicity in historical abuses, the harm might be some uncomfortable moments, perhaps some resentment. In that it repels potential allies, it may actually be more damaging to the people levying the guilt.
The effects of assigning collective guilt to Black people in the criminal justice system are more destructive. It means unnecessary encounters with armed law enforcement officials who, knowing the oft-recited homicide statistics, may be more likely to see Black people as threatening. It means degrading searches of pockets, cars, homes and bodies. And it means adjudication in a system that for two centuries helped subjugate people who look like them.
Collective guilt in the classroom is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s unproductive and needlessly confrontational. Collective guilt in the criminal justice system is as old as the foundations beneath our courthouses. And it destroys lives.