In the summer of 2013, after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, a Hispanic, was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, the political left wanted to have a discussion about everything except the black crime rates that lead people to view young black males with suspicion. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder wanted to talk about gun control. The NAACP wanted to talk about racial profiling. Assorted academics and MSNBC talking heads wanted to discuss poverty, “stand-your-ground” laws, unemployment and the supposedly racist criminal justice system. But any candid debate on race and criminality in the United States must begin with the fact that blacks are responsible for an astoundingly disproportionate number of crimes, which has been the case for at least the past half a century.
Crime began rising precipitously in the 1960s after the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, started tilting the scales in favor of the criminals. Some 63 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll taken in 1968 judged the Warren Court, in place from 1953 to 1969, too lenient on crime; but Warren’s jurisprudence was supported wholeheartedly by the liberal intellectuals of that era, as well as by politicians who wanted to shift blame for criminal behavior away from the criminals. Popular books of the time, like Karl Menninger’s “The Crime of Punishment,” argued that “law and order” was an “inflammatory” term with racial overtones. “What it really means,” said Menninger, “is that we should all go out and find the n–– and beat them up.”
The late William Stuntz, a Harvard law professor, addressed this history in his 2011 book, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” “The lenient turn of the mid-twentieth century was, in part, the product of judges, prosecutors and politicians who saw criminal punishment as too harsh a remedy for ghetto violence,” wrote Mr. Stuntz. “The Supreme Court’s expansion of criminal defendants’ legal rights in the 1960s and after flowed from the Justices’ perception that poor and black defendants were being victimized by a system run by white government officials. Even the rise of harsh drug laws was in large measure the product of reformers’ efforts to limit the awful costs illegal drug markets impose on poor city neighborhoods. Each of these changes flowed, in large measure, from the decisions of men who saw themselves as reformers. But their reforms showed an uncanny ability to take bad situations and make them worse.”
Crime rates rose by 139 percent during the 1960s, and the murder rate doubled. Cities couldn’t hire cops fast enough. “The number of police per 1,000 people was up twice the rate of the population growth, and yet clearance rates for crimes dropped 31 percent and conviction rates were down 6 percent,” wrote Lucas A. Powe Jr. in “The Warren Court and American Politics,” his history of the Warren Court. “During the last weeks of his  presidential campaign, Nixon had a favorite line in his standard speech. ‘In the past 45 minutes this is what happened in America. There has been one murder, two rapes, forty-five major crimes of violence, countless robberies and auto thefts.’”
As remains the case today, blacks in the past were overrepresented among those arrested and imprisoned. In urban areas in 1967, blacks were 17 times more likely than whites to be arrested for robbery. In 1980 blacks comprised about one-eighth of the population but were half of all those arrested for murder, rape and robbery, according to FBI data. And they were between one-fourth and one-third of all those arrested for crimes such as burglary, auto theft and aggravated assault.
Today blacks are about 13 percent of the population and continue to be responsible for an inordinate amount of crime. Between 1976 and 2005 blacks committed more than half of all murders in the United States. The black arrest rate for most offenses — including robbery, aggravated assault and property crimes — is still typically two to three times their representation in the population. Blacks as a group are also overrepresented among persons arrested for so-called white-collar crimes such as counterfeiting, fraud and embezzlement. And blaming this decades-long, well-documented trend on racist cops, prosecutors, judges, sentencing guidelines and drug laws doesn’t cut it as a plausible explanation.
“Even allowing for the existence of discrimination in the criminal justice system, the higher rates of crime among black Americans cannot be denied,” wrote James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein in their classic 1985 study, “Crime and Human Nature.” “Every study of crime using official data shows blacks to be overrepresented among persons arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for street crimes.” This was true decades before the authors put it to paper, and it remains the case decades later.
“The overrepresentation of blacks among arrested persons persists throughout the criminal justice system,” wrote Wilson and Herrnstein. “Though prosecutors and judges may well make discriminatory judgments, such decisions do not account for more than a small fraction of the overrepresentation of blacks in prison.” Yet liberal policy makers and their allies in the press and the academy consistently downplay the empirical data on black crime rates, when they bother to discuss them at all. Stories about the racial makeup of prisons are commonplace; stories about the excessive amount of black criminality are much harder to come by.
“High rates of black violence in the late twentieth century are a matter of historical fact, not bigoted imagination,” wrote Mr. Stuntz. “The trends reached their peak not in the land of Jim Crow but in the more civilized North, and not in the age of segregation but in the decades that saw the rise of civil rights for African Americans — and of African American control of city governments.” The left wants to blame these outcomes on racial animus and “the system,” but blacks have long been part of running that system. Black crime and incarceration rates spiked in the 1970s and ’80s in cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington under black mayors and black police chiefs. Some of the most violent cities in the United States today are run by blacks.
Black people are not shooting each other at these alarming rates in Chicago and other urban areas because of our gun laws or our drug laws or a criminal justice system that has it in for them. The problem is primarily cultural — self-destructive behaviors and attitudes all too common among the black underclass. The problem is black criminal behavior, which is one manifestation of a black pathology that ultimately stems from the breakdown of the black family. Liberals want to talk about what others should do for blacks instead of what blacks should do for themselves. But if we don’t acknowledge the cultural barriers to black progress, how can we address them? How can you even begin to fix something that almost no one wants to talk about honestly?
Jason Riley is a member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.