Is Stand Your Ground Racist?

Is Stand Your Ground Racist?

Lately, this chart from PBS has been making the rounds. It breaks down interracial justifiable-homicide data in states with and without Stand Your Ground laws:

PBS itself was careful in presenting the data, noting that these patterns don't in themselves prove bias, and that the black-on-white data was based on just 25 cases in total. But others have treated them as a smoking gun that the American criminal-justice system is racist. In general, states are more likely to find white-on-black killings to be justifiable, and this tendency is exacerbated when a Stand Your Ground law is in effect.

But it's worth thinking for a second about the situations that can lead to a justifiable homicide, and then consulting the data. Specifically, for a genuine justifiable homicide to occur, a person must (A) be legitimately threatened with a violent crime and (B) have the means to defend himself. 77 percent of justifiable homicides by private citizens involve firearms, so access to a gun is a clear factor here. If there are patterns in the way this situation tends to unfold between people of different races, we would expect those patterns to show up in the above data as well, even with no bias whatsoever in the criminal-justice system.

The Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey asks people whether they've been the victim of a crime recently, and also asks a variety of questions about what happened. The interracial statistics on violent crime are available on page 5 of this report. African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population but were identified as the offenders in 15.1 percent of violent crimes against whites. More strikingly, whites are a majority of the U.S. population but were identified as the offenders in only 11.5 percent of violent crimes against blacks.

The report also contains overall violent victimization rates: 28.7 per 1,000 for blacks and 22.8 per 1,000 for whites. Multiplication reveals that, in a given year, 3.3 of every 1,000 blacks are victimized by white offenders and 3.4 of every 1,000 whites are victimized by black offenders. These numbers are remarkably similar, but since whites outnumber blacks several times over in the population, white/black confrontations in general are far more likely to involve black offenders and white victims. Put differently, in order to make the victim rates so similar, the offender rates have to be quite different.

(Note: For some reason, the report is inconsistent in whether it treats Hispanic as a separate category. It does for the overall victimization rates, and for the race of the victims, but not for the race of the offenders. So, 15 percent of non-Hispanic white victims reported that the offenders were black, and 11 percent of non-Hispanic black victims reported that the offenders were white or Hispanic -- and the overall victimization rates are for non-Hispanic blacks and whites.)

Meanwhile, according to recent (2000-2012) data from the General Social Survey, whites are about twice as likely to own guns as blacks -- 41 percent to 19 percent. Presumably whites are also much more likely to have concealed-carry licenses, though data are hard to come by.

Of course, none of this rules out the possibility that some of the patterns in the graph above -- in particular the changes to the ratios that occur when Stand Your Ground is implemented -- are the result of racial discrimination on the part of police, prosecutors, and juries. But it does provide a competing explanation that must be taken into account.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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