Immigration: Facts vs. Ideology by Ron Unz
The American Conservative, February 24, 2010
My thanks to Matthew Roberts and Steve Burton (MR+SB) for publishing a detailed critique in Chronicles of my recent article on Hispanic crime rates. However, since I believe their analysis is largely mistaken, I’m providing a response:
(1) One major point which they and various others have criticized is my effort to exclude federal inmates when estimating Hispanic incarceration rates. Whether or not this should be done depends entirely upon what one is seeking to determine.
For example, since a large portion of federal inmates are held on immigration violations, if we were interested in determining the relative rate at which Hispanics and whites violate immigration laws, these figures would be absolutely crucial. However, I will gladly concede that Hispanics are perhaps 2,000% or even 3,000% more likely to be incarcerated for violating immigration laws than whites in America. In fact, when we consider that there are at least 12 million mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants in our country, and that a good fraction of these individuals have probably committed the felony of possessing false identity documents at one time or another, scrupulous enforcement of our immigration laws would produce an absolutely staggering rate of Hispanic incarceration, with total numbers dwarfing those of Stalin’s Gulag at its height.
On a more serious note, aside from immigration violations, the other major cause of federal imprisonment is drug smuggling across borders. Now regardless of one’s ideological preferences, illegal drug activity is certainly a crime, but including these numbers may also distort our estimates of ethnic crime rates. A clue why is provided if one visits the website of the anti-immigrationist Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and notices their touted claim that one-third of all federal prison inmates are “criminal aliens,” a figure many times higher than the percentage for state and local prisoners. The obvious reason is that there exists a thriving drug-smuggling operation all along our southern border, with low-level Mexican “drug mules” being hired to evade border guards and bring their illicit cargo into the United States on a regular basis. If they succeed, they go back home for another load, but if they’re caught, they end up in federal prison. Now these individuals are obviously Hispanic, but since they actually live Mexico rather than in the U.S., it hardly makes sense to regard them as “American” criminals.
The main focus of my analysis is to attempt to estimate the relative criminality of America’s whites and Hispanics with regard to ordinary day-to-day “street crimes” such as robbery, rape, murder, theft, burglary, fraud, arson, and assault. Such crimes are almost always prosecuted in state courts and almost no federal inmates are currently held on such charges. Therefore, it seems reasonable to exclude federal incarceration rates lest the large numbers of immigration violators and border drug-smugglers generate a statistical artifact distorting the overall ethnic data. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of a single case in which an illegal immigrant who committed an ordinary “street crime” was prosecuted in federal court, so I think this approach is quite sensible.
(2) Once we have made the decision to focus our attention on state+local incarceration statistics, we encounter some difficulties in obtaining the data. Most of the BJS figures tend to provide only aggregate federal+state+local imprisonment totals, and the most recent BJS reports often exclude the one-third of American criminals held in local jails, presumably to make the overall national incarceration data “look better.” This forced me to rely upon the numbers in the 2005 BJS Report, which have similarly been widely used by most other analysts, whether Left, Right, or Center, ranging from the Ford-funded Sentencing Project to Jared Taylor to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Now Table 13 of the 2005 Report contains a very nice set of incarceration figures, stratified by age, ethnicity, and gender. However, these include federal inmates, so I instead used Table 14 of the same report, which restricts itself to state+local inmates and stratifies by ethnicity and state, the last category also being of considerable interest to me.
MR+SB have correctly pointed out that there appears to be a slight discrepancy between the aggregate white national incarceration statistics in Table 13 and those in Table 14, and they argue that this is a fatal flaw in the document. However, this difference is not entirely surprising. The text for Table 14 explains that missing data for each state was extrapolated from the data provided. Presumably some different correction method was used for the missing data in producing the Table 13 results, perhaps based on national extrapolations. I wish to emphasize that I am making no strong claims that this official government data is absolutely accurate. However, since it is the only data available to us, I have been forced to rely upon it, along with everyone else interested in the subject. I’d also concede that some of the textual explanations of the data tables are rather opaque, but given that the report was written by professional statisticians employed by the federal government, this is hardly surprising.
MR+SB also correctly note that the same 2005-Table 14 state+local incarceration data stratified by ethnicity and state had been previously provided as Table 16 in the 2001 BJS report, and that the numbers were slightly different. However, since the national imprisonment totals had risen by over 10% during that four year period, I don’t share their surprise and distrust at discovering that the white imprisonment rate had also risen by over 10% during that same time. For obvious reasons, I chose to base my analysis on the more recent 2005 figures.
(3) Since the BJS state+local incarceration data is unfortunately stratified neither by age nor gender, I was forced to develop a methodology to adjust these figures for the age and gender differences of the relevant ethnic populations, and this seems to have confused MR+SB. As I mentioned in my article, my approach was simply to divide the total number of inmates by the total high-crime-age male population for each ethnic group to produce an age-adjusted incarceration rate; given methodological uncertainties, I repeated the calculation for 18-29, 15-34, and 15-44 male age cohorts and displayed the differing results. Since the median age of white criminals and white inmates is considerably different than the median age of the white population in general, this adjustment is greatest for white incarceration rates, which was a central point of my entire article. Since I don’t claim that my methodological approach to age-normalization is perfect, I’d welcome MR+SB to suggest and implement a superior approach.
(4) Given these huge methodological uncertainties, all the MR+SB arguments about 10% here or there discussed in (2) above are largely irrelevant. Furthermore, as I emphasized in my article, there are actually vast differences in incarceration rates between the white populations of different states. For example, whether or not we apply age-adjustments whites in Texas are 200% or 300% more likely to be imprisoned than whites in Illinois or New York. So even if my national Hispanic imprisonment estimates are off by some small amount due to the arguments made by MR+SM, they still fall rather close to the center of the white distribution curve.
Admittedly, it seems quite plausible that the ethnic incarceration data gathered by many states is flawed, especially in those states such as Georgia which have only recently experienced a large influx of Hispanics, and might therefore tend to categorize many of these as “white” in their old black/white record keeping system.
But there are even larger potential factors on the other side. For example, as I noted in my article, Hispanics are almost 200% more likely to live in cities than whites, and since densely-populated urban centers have always had much higher crime rates than rural or suburban areas, adjusting for urbanization would massively shift the relative ethnic incarceration ratio. Also, there is a widespread belief, not least among “immigration skeptics,” that the official estimate of twelve million (mostly Hispanic) illegal immigrants is a severe undercount, and since this population is generally young and male, a much higher figure would also drastically reduce the relative Hispanic imprisonment rate. If anything, I’d guess that my estimate of the relative Hispanic/white incarceration rate is a rather conservative one.
(5) Next, MR+SM raise some doubts about my urban crime comparisons. For example, they argue that some of my Hispanic and white city-crime comparisons may be distorted by the size of the black populations. Although this might have some impact, there’s no obvious way to adjust for each and every urban parameter in individual city comparisons, and anyway the cases they cite are quite unpersuasive.
For example, I noted that Seattle and San Jose are very similar cities in most respects, and that although the former is among the whitest cities in America and the latter is one-third Hispanic, San Jose’s crime rates are actually much lower, with roughly half the rate of robberies or violent crime in general. MR+SM argue that the crucial underlying difference is that Seattle is 8.4% black while San Jose is only 3.5% black. But this doesn’t make any sense. If Hispanics actually had a much higher crime rate than whites, then a 4.9 point difference in the black population couldn’t possibly swamp the impact of a 30 point difference in the Hispanic population. They have cited an example which completely undercuts their entire case.
Or consider Los Angeles. Today’s crime rates are roughly the same as those in the early 1960s. Since that time, the Hispanic population has grown by 40 points while the black population has dropped by 4 points. This wouldn’t seem possible if Hispanics had high crime rates. And violent crime in Los Angeles today is approximately the same as in Portland, Oregon, America’s whitest major city, in which the Hispanic population is below 10% and the black population is actually much lower than in LA.
Similarly, El Paso and Santa Ana are each 80% Hispanic, the most heavily Hispanic cities in the country. Yet both of these cities have violent crime rates lower than 86% white Lincoln, Nebraska, the single whitest city in America. Since each of these three cities has black populations of just 3% or lower, I don’t see how MR+SM can be argue that blacks are the crucial factor here.
Anyway, my cross-correlations showed that across all cities, Hispanic percentage and White+Asian percentage are almost indistinguishable in their relation to urban crime rates. This result would be extremely implausible if Hispanics actually had much higher crime rates than whites.
And as I also noted in my article, all my urban crime correlations were based on the total ethnic percentages, rather than being adjusted for high-crime age males. The latter adjustment would actually reduce the Hispanic urban crime rate correlation to significantly below the White+Asian rate.
(6) Finally, there is the question of ideology. MR+SB correctly claim that I generally support immigration combined with ethnic assimilation, and that I have been sharply critical of policies such as bilingual education and affirmative action partly for this reason. They even go so far as to characterize my set of positions as “Unzism,” adopting a term coined in 2000 by Steve Sailer. This leads them to boldly entitle their entire article “Unzism – A Dangerous Doctrine,” and actually devote nearly half the space to denouncing what they regard as this harmful “ideology.”
Although I am certainly gratified to have my name enshrined as the appellation of a rather sensible set of positions, I can hardly claim to be the first American individual to share these views. As near as I can tell, President Ronald Reagan and every other prominent conservative of his era believed in exactly the same thing. And indeed the roots of “Unzism” seem to stretch back much further than that, to an era before I was even born. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that nearly every prominent American political leader during our two centuries of history more or less followed what MR+SB now denounce as “Unzism.” Certainly, this includes Benjamin Franklin, whose well-known fears about the looming threat of German immigration were focused primarily on concerns that the German immigrants were not learning English nor assimilating into mainstream American society. I would obviously be quite pleased if our high-school history textbooks began identifying Benjamin Franklin as an early adherent of “Unzism,” but I suspect this is too much to ask. Although I am not a specialist in American history, my impression is that what MR+SB now label “Unzism” is pretty similar to elements of what was often in the past called “Americanism.”
I must admit I find it a bit odd that a publication such as Chronicles would devote so much space to such a blistering attack upon views seemingly shared by nearly all of America’s historical leaders across the last couple of centuries. But I suppose that we live in strange times…