Class, race, poverty, the drug war, and the death penalty




In 2012, 9.7% of non-Hispanic whites (18.9 million) were living in poverty, while over a quarter of Hispanics (13.6 million), and 27.2% of blacks (10.9 million) were living in poverty.
In 2012, 12.7% of blacks (almost 5.1 million), 10.1% of Hispanics (almost 5.4 million), and 4.3% (8.4 million) of non-Hispanic whites were living in deep poverty.



"They've got the money, they've got the power, they've got Guadeloupe," snapped protester Lollia Naily. "This is not a race thing. It is a money thing and it is a power thing."


“Four-fifths of us who work for salaries or wages make less than $20 an hour. This is a poor country. We're a nation of the working poor, and it's something that people don't want to acknowledge.” Dale Maharidge

For most of my life, I would've guessed the worst poverty in the US was in Watts, Appalachia, or Mississippi, but The Economist’s “The Poorest Part of America” notes, “Virtually all of the 20 poorest counties in America, in terms of wages, are on the eastern flank of the Rockies or on the western Great Plain.” The race of the people in the poorest part of the US? “It is largely white. The area does include several pockets of wretched Native American poverty, but in most areas the poor are as white as a prairie snowstorm.”

Tony Pugh wrote in “U.S. economy leaving record numbers in severe poverty”, “Nearly two out of three people (10.3 million) in severe poverty are white, but blacks (4.3 million) and Hispanics of any race (3.7 million) make up disproportionate shares. Blacks are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be in deep poverty, while Hispanics are roughly twice as likely.”

Regardless of race, Americans have very little hope of rising to a higher economic class. Economist Miles Cork found that among the major developed countries, only Italy and the United Kingdom have less economic mobility than the US.

Thinking of poverty as a racial problem ignores two-thirds of the problem. Poverty does not need to be made proportionate. It needs to be eliminated.

The Death Penalty

If you believe the US is a classless society, race is clearly an enormous factor in the death penalty. The US is about 66% white, 13.5% black, 1% American Indian, 4.5% Asian, and 15% Hispanic/Latino, but according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the racial percentages for people legally executed for murder since 1976 are:

BLACK: 34%
WHITE: 57%

The races of the victims:

BLACK: 14%
WHITE: 79%

The victims are fairly representative of the US population, but the murderers are racially disproportionate. Someone who only considers race would conclude blacks murder more than whites, and blacks are more likely to get the death penalty than whites.

But there are other factors. John McAdams said, “It is clearly the case that blacks who murder whites are treated more harshly than are blacks who murder blacks. This looks like racial disparity if you assume that the circumstances are similar in the two cases. Unfortunately, it's vastly unlikely that they are. Most murders are among people who know each other. Murders done by strangers are much more likely to be regarded as heinous than are murders growing out of domestic quarrels, drug deals gone wrong, and such. It might seem reasonable to compare the punishment received by blacks who murder whites with the treatment received by whites who murder blacks. Unfortunately, while black on white crime is relatively rare, white on black crime is even rarer. There simply isn't an adequate statistical base to allow us to generalize about whites who murder blacks, which pretty much leaves us to compare the way the system treats blacks who murder blacks with the way it treats whites who murder whites. When we do this, we find some fairly solid-looking evidence that the system is unfairly tough on white murderers -- or if you prefer, unfairly lenient on black murderers. But even this finding is one we have to be skeptical about. Is the average black on black murder quite similar to the average white on white murder? Or are there systematic differences?”

So what might cause systematic differences? It's hard to find the percentages for class, race, and the death penalty. We know the rich rarely face the death penalty, regardless of their race—OJ Simpson faced life imprisonment, not death. In 2005, I did these calculations:

From “Capital punishment in the United States”: “Approximately 58 percent of the defendants executed were white; 34 percent were black; 6 percent were Hispanic; and 2 percent were from other races.”

From “New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty FAQ”: “Ninety-five percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them.”

The racial breakdown of poverty in the USA:

Asian American: 2.92% (or 3%)
Black: 25.17% (or 25%)
Hispanic: 22.68% (or 23%)
non-Hispanic White: 49.23% (or 49%)

So, remembering that nearly everyone who's executed is poor, let's line this up:

Percentage of people in poverty who are white: 50%
Percentage of people executed who are white: 58%

Percentage of people in poverty who are black: 25%
Percentage of people executed who are black: 34%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Hispanic: 23%
Percentage of people executed who are Hispanic: 6%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Asian: 3%
Percentage of people executed who are "other": 2%

The white and black poverty-to-execution ratio may be high because there's more crime in cities—a higher percentage of the Latino poor is rural. Or maybe Latinos commit fewer crimes of the sort that result in execution. Or maybe we need a lot more study before trying to conclude anything. But I'm comfortable concluding this: the death penalty is based on class, not race.

Looking for more evidence, I found a surprising supporter: In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft said in the conclusion of a government study, "There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty."

When I wrote about this in 2005, someone identified as Carl left this comment:

For the past 20+ years I’ve worked in the criminal justice system—the past 8 years for a criminal defense firm, and the 14 years before that as a court clerk—I’ve done more death penalty cases than I want to think about (very few attorneys or judges ever want to do even one, and once you’ve done one, you never want to do another—they’re brutal on everyone involved), and can honestly say that in my experience (in California—your state may be different), the vast majority of DP felons (and felons in general) tend to be poor, poorly educated, and not very bright in general, with very poor social and coping skills. While there are occasional exceptions, they are damned rare.

The only notable exception I worked on was a wealthy woman who went even more psycho (she was bizarre at first, and went completely around the bend when her husband dumped her in favor of Next Year’s Model), and murdered the ex and his new wife in their beds. That one showed up on TV, both in the news and in movies-of-the-week, and she managed to avoid the death penalty, where poorer killers were far more likely to get Death. (Yes—you can probably guess the name).

In my experience (and hers, and OJ’s), money plays a far greater role than ethnicity.

The Drug War

The Crime of Being Poor | Prison Legal News: "White prisoners tend to share one thing with their black and Hispanic compatriots: poverty. Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest."

"The primary reason for this massive number of black men in jail is the War on Drugs. Therefore, if the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all." —John McWhorter, "How the War on Drugs is Destroying Black America"

The racial mix of Americans who live under the poverty line is roughly 50% non-Hispanic white, 25% black, 22% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. If prison simply reflected poverty, the figures would be the same for all crimes. But Drug War Facts gives this picture for drug offenses: "Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were black, 50,100 (19.97%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white."

While the drug war is wildly disproportionate, class still matters in the drug war. From “Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the US Federal Courts”, a 2001 study by David Mustard: “Having no high school diploma resulted in an additional sentence of 1.2 months. Income had a significant impact on the sentence length. Offenders with incomes of less than $5,000 were sentenced most harshly. This group received sentences 6.2 months longer than people who had incomes between $25,000 and $35,000.”

According to “The rich get richer and the poor get prison”,  “Among those entering prison in 1991, about 70 percent earned less than $15,000 a year when they were arrested, and 45 percent didn’t have a full-time job. One in four prisoners is mentally ill, and 64 percent never graduated from high school.”


• Race is a recent idea. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the oldest example of "race" in the modern sense of dividing people into groups based on physical characteristics comes from 1774: "The second great variety in the human species seems to be that of the Tartar race." Before this time, "race" was a more general term for groups of related things: the race of women, the German race, the race of heroes, the race of tart wines, etc.

Four centuries ago, slavery had nothing to do with race. In the 1600s, 80,000 to 130,000 Irish were sent into slavery in America and the West Indies. The African slave trade was a simple exercise in capitalism: Africans sold slaves to Europeans who transported them to North and South America. Regardless of the place of origin, white, black, and red slaves worked and lived together under equally barbaric conditions.

The modern concept of race was promoted by rich Europeans in the 17th century to perpetuate slavery. When the idea was accepted, slavery did not get worse; the horrors of life in the race-obsessed plantations and mines of the Americas were much like the horrors of Rome's colorblind slavery in galleys, mines, and commercial farms. But among people who accepted the idea of race, circumstances for people who were seen as "white" improved slightly.

One monstrous aspect of the African slave trade, the tightly packed ships of the "middle passage," may be unique; little seems to be known about transporting slaves in the Roman Empire. Capitalism, not racism, explains the middle passage: it was the most profitable way to deliver human cargo. Humans do not need race to rationalize inhuman treatment of someone identified as "other": see the massacre of nonviolent Cathars for a horrific example.

• The notion of race does not exist in many cultures today. It's strongest in countries affected by the slave empires of Spain and Britain. Though slavery thrived in Africa for thousands of years, the idea of race is weak there, where social dynamics are primarily seen in terms of gender, clan, nation, religion, and wealth.

 Race is not ethnicity. Ethnicity comes from cultural history, not biology. "African-American" is a unit of ethnicity; "black" is a unit of race. A white or a black can be ethnically Cherokee for generations, yet Cherokees who see the world in racial terms will vote to keep "impure" Cherokees out of the tribe.

For people who accept the idea of race, ethnicity is a component of race. This leads to confusion in the case of individuals like Condoleeza Rice, a rich African American who consistently acts in the interests of her class, the rich, but is called a "race traitor" by people who see the world through a racial filter.

Terminology becomes especially complex with groups like the Jews: an ethnic Jew may not be a religious Jew, a religious Jew may not be an ethnic Jew, and a Jew's race may be, to use slightly archaic racial categories, Semitic, Caucasian, Negro, or Oriental. Yet an Islamist who insults a Jew is likely to be accused of antisemitism, even if the Islamist is racially semitic and the Jew is not.

• The purpose of race is to exaggerate differences, create divisions, and confuse issues. A "black" person and a "white" person are, by definition, incompatible, even if the skin tone of the "black" is lighter than that of the "white." If a person is harmed by a person of another race, the motive becomes confused: was the harm inspired by race or something else? In the Katrina disaster, 85% of New Orleans' poor were black, but 100% of New Orleans' poor were hurt by the government's failure to act quickly and efficiently.

• Trying to solve the problems of race by addressing race perpetuates the idea of race. Accepting the terminology of race is to accept a battleground chosen by the proponents of race. It can create new areas of division: why should "affirmative action" help some poor people and not all poor people? The solution is to stop focusing on the symptoms of race and address the greater cause: social injustice.

• Race does not exist, but racism does. Devout racists and racialists will never change their beliefs. Treat them like anyone with bizarre beliefs: if they're harmless, tolerate them in the same way you would tolerate someone who believes in green and gray aliens. If they're violent, arrest them or have them committed. A Black Muslim and a Ku Klux Klan member are equally entitled to believe in racial purity, so long as they don't try to impose that purity on society.

• "Race" can be discarded if people choose to discard it. Societies regularly abandon concepts. Few people today believe in the divine right of kings, and fewer accept one of the Roman Empire's fundamental principles, that it's proper to divide society between citizens and slaves. Stopping the social concept of race is no different. We don't do it by waiting for everyone else. We change the world by changing ourselves, and if we're right, the world changes. Gandhi said, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." If you want people to stop seeing each other in terms of race, let the change begin with you.