Mark Twain (crediting, perhaps mistakenly, Benjamin Disraeli) famously said there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics". Fox News appears to have warranted the addition of a new category: damn statistics. The following image has come across my Facebook feed several times in the last little while:
I think this is one of the more egregiously irresponsible things I've seen this year. The numbers themselves are accurately reported from the FBI statistics, which you can confirm for yourself. But it's appallingly unhelpful to pick a statistic like that without giving appropriate background into how to interpret it. Reading it only as it appears above, you could be forgiven for concluding that white people are peaceful law-abiding decent folks, and black people are dangerous violent beasts, which is almost certainly what the people circulating this screen capture want you to believe. (Is that what Bill O'Reilly and Fox News want you to believe? I'll stop short of claiming that; all we have here is a screen capture taken out of context, and I'm sure a fair and balanced reporter would have taken great pains to explain the limitations and significance of the data.)
So the first thing I'd like to point out about the actual data is this: it's compiled by the FBI from the reports of the nearly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies operating the United States. Each of those 18,000 agencies has its own staff, and its own standards and procedures for investigating, reporting and categorizing crimes. Not all of them report on the race of the suspect, and if you look at the FBI table, you'll see that 4112 murders are attributed to an offender of "unknown" race (and 249 "other", which I'll ignore for the purposes of this essay). That's almost as many murders as the total attributed to whites, a huge hole in the data if you're trying to establish a correlation between violence and race.
How many of those 4112 murders were committed by whites and how many by blacks? There's no way to know from what's reported here. We probably shouldn't assume that it matches the proportions of the murders where race is reported, though, because the very decision to treat race as a relevant factor in reporting crime statistics may reveal institutional biases, either in the police agency or in its community or both. A police agency that tracks crime by race may be more prone to racial profiling, and thus more likely to catch black offenders than white ones. So, a fair number of those 4112 "unknown" murders may in fact be committed by whites who got away with it, and some of the 5375 murders attributed to blacks may well represent the wrongly accused.
But, you might observe, even if all of the 4112 "unknown" murders were committed by whites, that still means that there were 8508 murders by whites and 5375 by blacks, which is still grossly disproportionate to their respective shares of the population at large. A race that makes up 13% of the population should not account for 39% of the murders!
True enough, but there's some other important information missing from the FBI data: economics. We know (and have known for thousands of years) that there's a pretty strong correlation between poverty and violent crime; wealthier communities tend to be less violent than poorer ones. (I would say less criminal, but it's complicated; white collar crime is still crime, but it's not generally violent, and the worst white collar crime isn't even treated as crime at all.) We also know that in the United States, wealth disparities are huge, correlated with race. In 2009, the median income for white families was $62,525, and for black families it was $38,409. (The same table shows "Asian and Pacific Islander" median income at $75,027, which might explain the almost negligibly small 249 "other" murders I said I'd ignore.)
So it would be interesting to see how the FBI stats would look if broken down by family income. I'd expect that once you correct for income, the murder rates of whites and blacks are much closer to the same. They're probably not quite equal, mind you, because many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. tend (intentionally or not) to be more zealous in pursuing black offenders than white. But they're equal enough that we should not be reinforcing these stupid and destructive prejudices.