DEBATING CAPITAL PUNISHMENT at an Ivy League university a few years ago, I was confronted with the claim that since death sentences are more often meted out in cases where the victim is white, the death penalty must be racially biased. It's a spurious argument, I replied. Whites commit fewer than half of all murders in the United States, yet more whites than blacks are sentenced to death and more whites than blacks are executed each year. (56 percent of death row inmates are white, and of the 53 murderers executed last year, 32 were white.) If there is racial bias in the system, it clearly doesn't operate in favor of whites.
But if you do choose to focus on the race of victims, I added, remember that nearly all black homicide is intraracial -- more than nine out of 10 black murder victims in the United States are killed by black murderers. So applying the death penalty in more cases where the victim is black would mean sending more black men to death row.
After the debate, a young black woman accosted me indignantly. Ninety-plus percent of black blood is shed by black hands? What about all the victims of white supremacists? Hadn't I heard of lynching? Hadn't I heard of James Byrd, who died so horribly in Jasper, Texas? When I assured her that Byrd's murder by whites was utterly untypical of most black homicide, she was dubious. So I asked for an e-mail address, and promised to send her a link to the FBI's violent-crime statistics.
I thought of that young woman when I read recently about James Ford Seale, the former Mississippi Klansman sentenced last month to three life terms in prison for his role in murdering two black teenagers 43 years ago. The killing of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in 1964 was one of several unsolved civil-rights-era crimes that prosecutors in the South have reopened in recent years. Seale's trial was a vivid reminder of the days when racial contempt was a deadly fact of life in much of the country. His sentence proclaims even more vividly the transformation of America since then. White racism, once such a murderous force, is now associated mostly with feeble has-beens.
Yet many Americans, like the woman at my debate, still seem to view racial questions through an antediluvian lens. To them, it is always the 1960s: White bigotry remains a clear and present danger, and the reason so many black Americans die before their time.
But the data aren't in dispute. Though outrage over "racism" is ever fashionable, African-Americans have long had far less to fear from the violence of racist whites than from the mayhem of the black underclass.
"Do you realize that the leading killer of young black males is young black males?" asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan 16 years ago. "As a black man and a father of three, this really shakes me to the core of my being."
From Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, came a similar cry of anguish. "Nothing in the long history of blacks in America," he lamented in 1994, "suggests the terrible destruction blacks are visiting upon each other today."
Happily, crime rates have declined from their 1990s peak. But it remains the case that the worst destruction in black America is self-inflicted.
In a new study, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics confirms once again that almost half the people murdered in the United States each year are black, and 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by someone of their own race. (For white homicide victims, the figure is 85 percent.) In other words, of the estimated 8,000 African-Americans murdered in 2005, more than 7,400 were cut down by other African-Americans. Though blacks account for just one-eighth of the US population, the BJS reports, they are six times more likely than whites to be victimized by homicide -- and seven times more likely to commit homicide.
Such huge disproportions don't just happen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned 40 years ago that the collapse of black family life would mean rising chaos and crime in the black community. Today, as many as 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock or raised in fatherless households. And as reams of research confirm, children raised without married parents and intact, stable families are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior.
High rates of black violent crime are a national tragedy, but it is the law-abiding black majority that suffers from them most. "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life," Jesse Jackson said in 1993, "than to walk down the street and hear footsteps . . . then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved."
It isn't an insoluble problem. Americans overcame white racism; they can overcome black crime, too. But the first step, as always, is to face the facts.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)