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Exchange: Katha Pollitt and Alexander Cockburn on the Hispanic Crime Rate | The Nation

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Exchange: Katha Pollitt and Alexander Cockburn on the Hispanic Crime Rate

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Editor's Note: Nation columnist Katha Pollitt took issue with Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn's recent assertion that Ron Unz had published groundbreaking research on Hispanic crime rates. Cockburn's response to Pollitt's criticisms can be read here; Pollitt's initial response to Cockburn is reposted below and can also be found on her blog, And Another Thing.

About the Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...
Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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***


ALEXANDER COCKBURN

writes:

Petrolia

A couple of weeks ago I did a Nation column on Hispanic crime rates, citing a big piece by Ron Unz, publisher of the American Conservative, going through the statistical data and concluding on the basis of age-weighting and other considerations that contrary to popular belief, Hispanic crimes rates are at least the same as whites and--given the unknown number of illegal Hispanic immigrants in the country--could be considerably lower.

Probably naívely, I thought it encouraging that a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan should devote its March cover and a substantial number of pages to a persuasive assault on right-wing hysteria about the supposedly astronomic crime rates of Hispanics in America. At the end of this column I had a couple of paragraphs in which I recorded Unz's surprise that liberal foundations had not exerted themselves more energetically in this area to refute ignorant prejudice, with a couple of thoughts of my own on liberal racism.

This little coda is what sent Katha Pollitt scurrying to her laptop. It's "annoying," she snapped, "when conservatives take credit for work liberals have been doing for much longer and far more seriously. It's even more irritating when a leftist [that's AC] is so eager to bash liberals, he joins the parade."

Then she listed a number of papers from the liberal end of the spectrum on the topic of Hispanics and crime, plus some testy comments from academics working in this field, claiming that Unz was reinventing the wheel and that what the American Conservative was trumpeting on its cover was old news, known to all, or at least to liberal communicators such as Pollitt, though not Cockburn, all too eager to take yet another whack at the pwogs.

The trouble is that Katha--to judge from this piece at least--doesn't actually know anything about the topic of Hispanic crime, therefore doesn't know what's widely known, what's not widely known and what's completely mistaken. Even the very limited research she references is on the topic of "immigrant Hispanic crime," not "overall Hispanic crime," and these studies are sometimes are highly misleading for that reason.

For example Katha quotes Reuben Rumbaut at UC Irvine as saying patronizingly on the phone to her that "I'm amused by [Unz's] 'discovery' of something I've been writing about since the last millennium." She encourages Nation readers to peruse a 2007 paper by Rumbaut. Actually, this paper claims--wrongly--that Mexican crime rates skyrocket 700 per cent in the generation after immigration. According to a Rumbaut chart, American-born Hispanics are 250 percent more likely to be imprisoned than American-born whites--a result which would be grim news for America's future if it were correct. Here's a link. Scroll down a bit to Figure 3, and Nation readers can discover where Tom Tancredo may have got his ideas about Latino crime rates.

But Katha seems to have been in too much of a hurry even to look at the studies she cited as proof that "everyone already knew" exactly the opposite of what the studies actually claimed. Similarly, she cites Harvard's Robert J. Sampson as having had an op-ed in the New York Times a few years back, arguing that immigrant Hispanics had low crime rates. But this column didn't say anything about the much larger number of native-born Hispanics, a very different question.

Her derision--buttressed by a couple of academics (not a breed renowned for intellectual generosity) about the supposed lack of originality of Unz's piece--is misplaced. As Unz points out, no one previously explored the age-adjustment or cross-correlation methods, even in the academic literature. Let's go to the all important general point: just how well known are the facts about Hispanics and crime? Anecdotally, I should say that my column, scrutinized by a few Nation editors--all well-informed on social issues at The Nation--did not elicit the swift rebuke that I was flogging a dead horse.

It's true that some academic specialists have generally been aware that Latinos didn't have especially high crime rates (though as far as I know nobody's previously used Unz's particular methodologies to make the point directly and quantitatively). Even the volume of academic literature seems extremely scant, relative to the magnitude of the subject involved. Over the last decade, there have been a couple of books by Ramiro Martinez dealing with the subject, and a relatively small number of journal articles, few of which are very direct or explicit. But there's a huge difference between academic specialists being generally aware of this, and perhaps occasionally communicating their results to other academic specialists via turgid journal articles and books, and this information getting out to a wider public audience.

"As far as I can tell," Unz says, "there's been virtually none of the latter effort. I'm pretty sure I've almost never seen anything mentioned in any of the six newspapers I've read daily for the last 15 years, or in any of the numerous opinion magazines to which I subscribe. If you go on the websites of the major liberal pro-immigrant/pro-Hispanic public advocacy organizations ranging from the National Immigration Forum to La Raza you'll find almost no mention of this claim anywhere, let alone any study or report highlighting it. If you try using Google, you'll find very, very little that suggests otherwise. In fact, one of the very few individuals who's directly specialized in this field is Ramiro Martinez, cited by Ms. Pollitt, who's written almost the only books directly on the topic of Hispanic crime. I sent him a copy of my article, which he said he liked, and we traded several notes. He actually agreed with me how unfortunate it was that so little of the public had been informed of these important facts. My claim is certainly not that the academic specialists have been deluded, but simply that they, and the organizations sponsoring them, have done an extremely poor job of communicating their findings to the general public."

Katha cites Sampson's op-ed in the NYT, addressing crime rates of immigrant Hispanics. Meanwhile, there have been a large number of major NYT news stories focusing on murderous Latino gangs, Latino prison inmates and Latino social pathologies that have provided exactly the opposite impression, let alone what's daily on Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and similar media outlets. Given how much money Ford, Soros, et al., spend, maybe during all these years they could have issued one study or report entitled "Hispanic Crime Rates" arguing that Hispanics have approximately the same crime rates as whites, and sent it out with a big press release.

There are at least about 50 million Hispanics in America, and they're projected to become 25 percent of the total national population. Whether they have high crime rates or low crime rates is a huge issue for the future of America, and a very large fraction of the public wrongly believes they have high crime rates. As Unz wrote to me yesterday,"All my article really does is prove that rocks fall downward--but that may still be a huge revelation to lots of people. I'd be very curious if Ms. Pollitt can find any sentence in any article which she's ever written or which The Nation has ever published by someone else saying something like 'Hispanics seem to have approximately the same crime rates as whites of the same age.' "

Incidentally, Katha says she resigned as a Nation "associate editor" out of anger that The Nation had published a piece by Unz in support of his backing for a California referendum on bilingual education. Perhaps this is really what set her off when she saw Unz's name in my column. But she gets this wrong too. What she's actually misremembering is that about a year after Prop 227 passed, a Nation editor noticed a piece Unz had written criticizing vouchers, and asked Unz to modify it to run in The Nation, which it duly did.


KATHA POLLITT

writes:

Berlin

Unlike my colleague Alexander Cockburn, I was not surprised by "HisPANIC: the Myth of Immigrant Crime," Ron Unz's article in The American Conservative showing that Latinos in the United States have a crime rate no higher than that of whites once you adjust for age. That's because Unz's thesis, which both he and Alex think is new and original, is in fact well-known. Even I, no sociologist, was aware of it. I'm glad that Unz, a multi-millionaire best known for pushing California's successful 1998 referendum banning bilingual education, is challenging anti-immigrant right-wingers like Pat Buchanan and Glenn Beck. (For reasons I still don't understand, The Nation published a piece by Unz in support of his referendum, causing me to resign my largely ceremonial title as associate editor.) But it's annoying when conservatives take credit for work liberals have been doing for much longer and far more seriously. It's even more irritating when a leftist is so eager to bash liberals, he joins the parade.

A little research--some internet searches, a few e-mails, maybe (gasp) a phone call or two--would have shown how empty Unz's claims to originality are. But facts would have interfered with Alex's theory that "foundation liberals" left the research undone because they sympathize unconsciously with racism due to their obsession with "population control." Or something like that.

Let's go through Alex's claims.

Has Ron Unz discovered something new? No. The low crime rate of Latinos has been studied by social scientists for over a decade now. It's part of the much-studied "Latino paradox," the numerous ways in which Latinos in the US do better than their poverty would lead one to expect. (Low infant mortality and normal birth weights are others.) Numerous scholars have written on Latino non-crime. Among the more prominent are Robert J. Sampson at Harvard, Ruben Rumbaut at UC Irvine, Philip Kasinitz and John Mollenkopf of the CUNY Graduate Center, and Florida International University's Ramiro Martinez, whose "Latino Homicide: Immigration, Violence, and Community was published by Routledge way back in in 2002. ("I'm amused by [Unz's] "discovery" of something I've been writing about since the last millennium," Rumbaut wrote in a long e-mail to me laying out the recent literature in considerable detail.) Unz even cites Rumbaut in a footnote, although the only scholars he cites in the body of his text are the co-authors of a paper challenging federal statistics on imprisonment of immigrants, and the American Enterprise Institute's Douglas Besharov, who, Sampson told me in an e-mail, is basically rehashing in a New York Times op-ed, an argument Sampson made a year earlier (that the increase in immigration was linked to the drop in crime.) Here's a handy list of recent articles, including those mentioned below, but by no means complete.

Has this academic work received support from "liberal foundations" ? Yes. Sampson and Rumbaut have both received major support from the MacArthur, Mellon and Russell Sage foundations. Martinez has received grants from the Ford Foundation and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Mollenkopf and Kasinitz have been funded by Russell Sage, Rockefeller, Mellon and Ford. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Big foundations fund think tanks, policy institutes and even other foundations. The Public Policy Institute of California, which in 2008 published "Crime, Corrections and California: What does Immigration Have to Do with It," by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, lists a slew of foundations among its funders, including Ford, Gates, Hewlett and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The National Immigration Forum, another NGO which has done work in this area, was co-founded by a Ford trustee and has received grants from just about every big "liberal foundation" you can think of. To say that foundations have steered clear of this area is just false, or as Rumbaut put it, 'laughable to the max, squared."

Has the story of Latino non-crime been publicized in what Unz calls the "very supportive mainstream media"? Yes. That is how I knew about it. To mention just a few relevant pieces, Sampson had an op-ed in the New York Times in 2006 "Open Doors Don't Invite Criminals." That same year, Eyal Press, a frequent Nation contributor, had an excellent and I would have thought quite noticeable article, "Do Immigrants Make Us Safer?," in The New York Times Magazine. The Latino "crime wave" has been debunked in Time, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. Unz was even scooped by other conservatives. Both David Brooks and Linda Chavez got there way before him.

If the myth of Latino crime persists, it's not because nobody debunked it before Ron Unz came along. Nor is it because liberal foundations have shown no interest in establishing the truth. It's because lots of Americans have racist and anti-immigrant feelings that are resistant to factual information. As Sampson told me when we spoke on the phone, "There's a long link in the popular mind between the perception of immigrant presence and the perception of disorder." Sampson thinks the research is getting traction, though. "It takes time for the information to penetrate, because of people's prejudices. But I think it's changing."

You could even say that Ron Unz's article shows the word has gotten out--apparently, even to Alex.

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