Posted: March 2, 2009
he decline in crime between 1994 and 2000 may have been the greatest in American history. Not only was the drop pronounced, it was nationwide and embraced all serious crime categories. Between 1990 and 2000, the nationwide murder rate—one of the most accurate crime indicators—fell 41%. And the federal government's crime victim survey revealed over the same decade a 38% drop in nonfatal violent crime.
The reduction in murders alone saved over 5,400 lives a year. The resulting change in many cities was palpable. Until the recent economic slump, tourism was thriving, and downtown hotels, restaurants, and theaters were flourishing. People no longer were afraid to go to business districts or park their cars on city streets. Remember those makeshift "No Radio" signs in car windows? Nowadays, so many cars come into Manhattan that New York's mayor wants to charge an entry fee. Our urban centers are safer, and perhaps as important, they feel safer.
Oddly, despite all of the effort to study crime when it was soaring, from the late 1960s through the early '90s, the great crime decline caught the experts by surprise. Not only did they fail to predict it, but even now they cannot quite explain it.
A big reason for this inability is the academy's refusal to deal candidly with questions of race. Although African-Americans are disproportionately involved in violent crimes, non-academics will no doubt be amazed to learn that few criminologists analyze in a frank, straightforward manner the role of African-Americans in crime. For instance, Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring's The Great American Crime Decline (2007) barely discusses race and does not even have an index entry for blacks or any other racial category. Zimring is not atypical, and the failure to examine or even identify the race factor is not accidental. Now that crime has declined and African-Americans are leading the downturn, perhaps we have an opportunity to present a more honest analysis of America's crime situation.
Police and Prisons
One might expect that the country's response to high crime—more police and stiffer sentences—would explain the crime fall. But the evidence is equivocal. From 1973 to 2002 there was a threefold growth in the rate of imprisonment in the United States; but criminologists have raised doubts about its efficacy. Andrew Karmen, in his study New York Murder Mystery (2000) pointed out that when New York City's crime rates fell in the '90s, indictments, convictions, and imprisonment in Gotham were declining not escalating. Looking at national data, Zimring calculated that the lowestincrease in incarceration in a quarter-century occurred from 1996 to 2000, the period of the greatest decrease in crime. A complex econometric analysis of the effect of incarceration developed by William Spelman attributed only 27% of the crime fall to the prison buildup. Furthermore, these studies aside, it is surprising that a long-term crime drop didn't occur earlier, say, in the 1980s when incarcerations accelerated. (Violent crime did drop in the early '80s, but the decline wasn't nearly as steep or as long-lasting as the one in the mid-'90s.) The other surprise is that crime's long-term slide seemed to occur rather abruptly in the mid-'90s.
The trouble with all of these analyses is that they may be measuring incapacitation, not deterrence. It is difficult to distinguish the effect on crime rates of removing from circulation offenders with a propensity to recidivate (i.e., incapacitation) and the impact of frightening into law-abidingness potential offenders who remain at large (deterrence).
We must also examine the role of the police. As crime fell in the 1990s the number of police officers in big cities increased 17%. On the basis of sheer numbers alone, one would expect greater police effectiveness. But numbers were only part of the story. There were notable improvements in the quality of police administration, with better measures of performance through Compstat (which incorporates computerized crime-mapping) and more aggressive patrols based on the Broken Windows (or community disorder) theory of policing developed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. And indeed, handgun checks, quality-of-life enforcement, and increased misdemeanor arrests seem to have made a real difference in both maintaining order and reducing violence.
For all the advances in police work, however, efficiency in arrests did not improve. The percent of homicides cleared by arrest went up a bit during the crime decline years, but never attained the 75% rates achieved in the 1970s. Since homicide clearances represent the best in police performance—the arrest rates for all other crimes are lower—one would have to credit the police for curbing violent crime by arresting a smaller proportion of violent criminals.
Kelling has argued that reducing petty crimes, such as graffiti-scrawling and window-breaking, restored a sense of order to high crime neighborhoods and discouraged law-breaking in general. This is undoubtedly true, but it is a leap to say that arresting misdemeanants, who are incarcerated briefly if at all, is sufficient to explain a 41% drop in murder nationwide, much less the 60% fall in violent crime in the Big Apple. In fact, Kelling claims that Broken Windows policing was responsible for only 5% of the reduction in violent crimes in New York City.
There is another reason to be skeptical that better policing was the central ingredient in the crime drop. The decline in crime was a nationwide phenomenon within a narrow time-frame. Yet policing is a local function in the United States. How could it be that so many locally run police departments got so smart so fast? In fact, some departments—Seattle's, for example—candidly admitted that they were baffled by the crime reductions in their cities. And whatever accounts for New York City's remarkable success in controlling crime—and then-Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deserve a lot of credit for increasing the size and efficiency of the NYPD—New York's achievement cannot explain the 51% violent crime drop in San Francisco or the 59% decline in Fort Worth.
Crime and Race
But there is indeed a factor that explains, or more accurately, begins to explain the crime fall: namely, race. The data on the relationship of race and crime, as I will show, speak volumes. Moreover, by closely analyzing the African-American role in crime we begin to discover other compelling explanations for its rise and fall.
Simply put, the decline in crime, especially in violent crime, was and is being driven by major reductions in offenses by African-American males. Black violent crime, which had been persistently high for over three decades (indeed, for a long time before that), began unexpectedly to nosedive in the mid-1990s. Since 2000 it has plateaued, but there are reasons to be optimistic about further declines.
Consider first our most accurate data: murder victims. Between 1990 and 2000, when the nationwide homicide rate dropped 41%, black homicide victimization fell 45%. Since crime is overwhelmingly intraracial—that is, blacks usually kill blacks and whites kill whites—the decline in murders of African-Americans is a good indicator of a falloff in murder byAfrican-Americans. This is confirmed by a 45% drop in black homicide offending between 1990 and 2000. (Perpetrator data are less reliable than, but are corroborated by, victim data.) For whites, whose rates were seven to ten times lower to begin with, the decline (37.5%) was less dramatic, as Chart A shows.
The results are comparable with respect to other crimes of violence, namely rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. From 1990 to 2000 non-homicidal violent crime declined 38%. Black violent victimizations over the same time period were cut in half (-49%). Once again, the decline in victimizations was mirrored in the figures for black offending. Arrest rates of African-Americans for violent crimes other than murder dropped 53%. (For whites, the decline was 21%.)
To be sure, it is too soon to declare victory. Despite the astonishing reduction, violent crime continues to be high compared with the 1950s and early 1960s. Moreover, black violence is still way out of proportion to that of any other racial or ethnic group. In 2005, for instance, African-Americans, who are around 12% of the U.S. population, were responsible for 55% of the murders in the United States, and their murder commission rate was nearly eight times that of whites. While the black crime problem is not solved, we may be seeing the beginning of a major long-term downward trend.
The unresolved question, of course, is why did black violent crime diminish at all? And why did it fall so much more than white crime? This is the real murder mystery. To solve it we must address black crime specifically.
A part of the decline in black crime may well have been caused by simple mobility: blacks have moved away from some of the most troubled and crime-ridden big cities. In fact, during the 1990s there was evidence of a reversal of the great postwar migration from the South to the North. In the 1960s, Northeastern states were the top gainers in black population and Southern states the big losers. In the '90s, this was flipped. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida saw the biggest growth in their black populations; New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the biggest declines.
Of course, this doesn't tell us which blacks moved south. The migrants could have included large numbers of retirees, which would not have affected crime. On the other hand, an outflow of adolescents certainly would have been significant.
Not all of the new black mobility was voluntary. Another piece of the puzzle is that some of the most crime-prone blacks were "taken off the streets." Justice Department figures indicate that from 1990 to 2000 the total number of sentenced inmates in the United States rose 77%, and by 2000 nearly 10% of young black men were in prison. The comparable white imprisonment rate was 1%.
Despite geographic mobility and incarceration, urban, black, lower-class young men—the most crime-prone population—did not decline nationwide. In fact, the black male population between the ages of 15 and 29 rose 2% between 1990 and 2000. A more telling measure than the national total, however, is the young black male population of the nation's big cities, the breeding ground for violent crime.
The urban population figures lend qualified support to the black mobility explanation. During the '90s, crime fell in eight of America's ten biggest cities, and in seven of the eight the young black male population (ages 15-29) also declined. In only one city, Philadelphia, did that key population go down while violent crime increased (see Chart B).
Significantly, however, in not one of the crime-drop cities did the decline in black male population keep pace with the reduction in crime. This is dramatically borne out by New York City, where violent crime fell 60% while the young black male population shrank 15%.
Thus, black population decline, cannot, by itself, explain the magnitude of the crime drop that occurred between 1994 and 2000.
Another possible explanation is social mobility. Many of the poor, black, high-crime neighborhoods are becoming less poor and less high-crime, while remaining just as black. In the North Kenwood-Oakland area of Chicago, for instance, the proportion of impoverished families went from 63% in 1990 to 39% by 2000. Yet the area remained around 98% black. We see a similar pattern in New York's Harlem.
Neighborhood upgrade is probably the result of a mix of geographic and social mobility. That is, some blacks are migrating south; other, relatively better-off blacks are moving into previously all-poor African-American communities (black gentrification); and there has been a steady multi-decade rise of African-Americans into the middle class. These developments complement each other and help drive down crime in black neighborhoods.
More than any other development, the growing African-American middle class bodes well for the nation's future because middle-class people, whatever their color, don't commit a lot of violent crime. But it does not explain the crime drop of the 1990s. We know this because crime fell dramatically in poor black districts even though they remained both poor and black.
To demonstrate this, I examined crime in five New York City police precincts with over 80% black population and high poverty, including Harlem and Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. Each had staggering homicide rates in 1990: from two to four times the rate for the city overall. Ten years later, when the citywide rate had fallen 73%, the murder rate in the five black precincts had dropped an even more remarkable 78%. For non-fatal violent crimes the results were nearly as impressive. The citywide decline was 60%; for the black precincts, 66%.
These precincts also made marked social progress in the 1990s. In Brooklyn's 81st Precinct, median income rose 43%, and in Central Harlem's 21st, the public assistance rolls were cut in half. Nonetheless, even in 2000, these precincts could hardly be described as prosperous. Indeed, they remained relatively poor and overwhelmingly African-American. And yet crime sank.
I found comparable results in Chicago, where the seven police districts with overwhelmingly black populations (above 90%) generated half the city's murders. During the great fall in crime between 1990 and 2000, however, murders in Chicago fell by 26%, and more than half of that decline occurred in the seven black districts. In Chicago as in New York, it was the black communities, evidently poor, that led the downturn in violent crime. Whatever may be said for geographic and social mobility—and they were and will continue to be significant—they cannot account for the plunge in crime. It is the impoverished African-Americans remaining in their communities who were most responsible for reducing crime.
The most plausible explanation for the crime decline is that it was caused by cultural change across generations, principally among African-Americans. In particular, the 1980s gave birth to a generation of African-Americans who increasingly rejected the culture of crime, and in some cases are mainstreaming into the middle class. Simply stated, these young black males saw the effects of drugs and crime on the adults in their communities and resolved that they did not want to spend their lives in prison or as junkies, or die prematurely from AIDS or murder. One might call this an intergenerational deterrent effect.
To understand this development consider the historical context. Three million African-Americans moved from the American South to the North—primarily to its big cities—between 1940 and 1960, and another 1.4 million relocated during the 1960s. This was one of the biggest migrations in American history, four times the size of the first black migration north during World War I. Lacking the work skills and education for successful adaptation to the urban rough and tumble, blacks occupied the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Nonetheless, they kept migrating, lured first by wartime jobs, then by hopes for economic and social opportunities foreclosed in the South.
In 1940, blacks were overwhelmingly rural and Southern; three-quarters lived below the Mason-Dixon line, and only 6% of the New York City population was black. In 1960, that last figure jumped to 14% and steadily increased with each subsequent decade. By 1990, blacks were 29% of the Big Apple. In Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, between 1940 and 1970, the black populations rose, respectively, 399%, 259%, and 475%. This Great Migration dramatically changed African-American residential patterns, as well as the cities to which they moved.
In 1960, just before the biggest increase in violent crime in American history got underway, the murder rate was a relatively low 5.1 (per 100,000). Twenty years later the murder rate doubled to an alarming 10.2 and, not coincidentally, the young black male population increased 42%. For two decades, from 1960 to 1980, murder, violent crime, and the black male population of the Northern cities soared. There is little doubt that it was this second generation of blacks (born after World War II) that drove the crime rates through the roof. Justice Department figures from 1976 on, when the data are most complete, tell the tale. Although African-Americans were around 12% of the U.S. population, they committed over half of the nation's murders.
Surveys, such as those made of arrested violent felons, all indicate that the most crime-prone years are ages 15-34 (15-24 for murderers). The second generation of migrated blacks—the black baby boomers, if you will—reached their most crime-active years in the mid-1960s and continued their criminal activity at extraordinarily high levels through the '70s. In the 1980s, the early cohort, born immediately after the war, reached their late 30s and started "aging out" of crime. As a result, murder rates began to decline. This mini-crime drop was short-lived, however; in the mid-1980s murder rates again turned sharply upward as the third, or "echo boomer" generation, having reached its late teens, took over crime production. Spurred by crack cocaine and the widespread availability of illegal handguns, these grandchildren of Southern migrants were responsible for the massive crime surge of the late '80s. What happened next, however, stunned the experts. In 1995, just when another generation, the late echo boomers, was expected to reach its peak years for murder and violent crime, crime plummeted.
The demographic theorists were mystified, and they weren't alone. They assumed that each generation would behave just like the one that preceded it. Since young males 15-24—especially poor, black, urban young males—dominated the violent crime statistics, the new generation, they assumed, would replicate the behavior of their fathers. Yet between 1990 and 2000, while the young urban black male population declined somewhat, murder fell by a whopping 41%. Most significantly, black crime and its accompanying black victimization plummeted to new lows.
Table A provides the murder rates during the 1990s for whites and blacks in each age category. Note how much higher the black murder rates are, but note too the magnitude of the decline in the second half of the decade, especially for the youngest group.
Between 1993 and 2000, the murder rate of the youngest of the late echo boomers' generation, black males ages 14-17, went from 253 to 64, a remarkable 75% plunge. White youngsters in the same age category did almost as well; their murder rate went from 23 to 8, a 65% decline. But when we examine each group's contribution to the murder total we see even more clearly that it is the young African-Americans who were primarily responsible for the great crime decline.
In Table B, which covers the seven year crime drop of the late '90s, the year-by-year figures, read from top-to-bottom, tell the number of murders by each group and the percentage of total murders by that group as the decline in crime progressed.
These figures reveal that
- White male offenders, all ages, showed modest increases in their portion of total homicides during the crime drop years; from 1994 to 2000 their share rose from 42.6% to 45.5%.
- Black male offenders, all ages, showed modest decreases in their portion of total homicides during the crime drop years; from 1994 to 2000 their contribution dropped from 57.4% to 54.5%.
- The proportion of total homicides committed by white male offenders, ages 14-24, remained basically stable during the crime drop years, declining 3%.
- The proportion of total homicides committed by black male offenders, ages 14-24, declined significantly during the crime drop years; from 1994 to 2000 it fell from 38.1% to 31.9%, a relative decline of 17%.
The crime fall years were marked by steadily decreasing proportions of murders by blacks. In other words, while the murder pie shrank during the late '90s—the total murders by all races declined—the black portion of the pie eroded the most. The reduction in murders by black males, especially by younger males (14-24), was largely responsible for the nation's overall homicide decline from 1994-2000.
Crime and Culture
Experts have been baffled by the crime problem because they focus on social conditions—poverty, unemployment, housing, segregation, etc.—while assuming that any group living in conditions similar to these of the black lower class would have the same response, namely, violent crime. But this turns a blind eye to different groups' varying reactions to social circumstances. Groups develop distinctive ways of viewing the world and acting in it—unique cultures, or if they are part of a larger social collective, subcultures. Only through a study of a group's history can we understand the genesis and character of its culture.
The relationship between black violence and the troubling history of African-Americans—a chronicle of slavery, discrimination, poverty, and segregation—remains insufficiently examined. With the exception of slavery, all immigrant groups suffered these social ills, some in greater measure than blacks, but few committed violent crime at anything near the rates of African-Americans, and none over the course of an entire century. As for slavery, it ended 100 years before the black crime rise of the 1960s and cannot be a direct causal factor. What's more, American blacks from the Caribbean, despite a history of slavery and the same skin color disadvantages as African-Americans, have had much lower crime rates. Nor has it been explained why poverty, racism, and the like should have caused violent crime, as opposed to the nonviolent (property crime) variety that typifies economic adversity.
The roots of contemporary black violence may be found in the immediate post-slavery history of African-Americans. When they were slaves blacks were nonviolent; their crimes mainly were petty theft. It is, ironically, in the decades after emancipation that the freedmen, set adrift in the social turmoil of the 19th-century South, turned to violence. When impoverished African-Americans first migrated into Southern cities after Emancipation they were illiterate and unskilled and had few opportunities for social and economic betterment. It was then that young black men developed what historian Joel Williamson called the "street-corner, pool-hall hustling, and petty criminal way of life." The children of these freedmen, the first generation after slavery, knew only poverty, turmoil and brutality—Ku Klux Klan terrorism, pogrom-like riots, and economic depressions. It was this generation that, in the 1890s, turned to violence, largely directed at other blacks. Such transgressions, unlike crimes against whites (which invited lynching) frequently were ignored, and thereby encouraged by the authorities. This was the origin of the black subculture of violence.
In the 20th century, as poor African-Americans migrated north in search of a better life, they brought with them this criminal subculture. That is why W.E.B. Du Bois, writing about Philadelphia in 1899, called black crime "a vast problem," which he attributed to "a distinct class of habitual [Negro] criminals." (See his The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.) Perpetuated by limited opportunities in the North and continual migration from the South, the black subculture of crime hardened into a seemingly fixed lifestyle.
This black lower-class culture of violence remains the best explanation for black crime, and in large measure, for America's crime story since World War II. Fortunately, and contrary to racist dogmas, culture is not immutable. It responds to social experiences. It changes over time and across generations. And it is the change in the black subculture—a change that developed in the sons and daughters of the black baby boomers and continues today—that best explains the great crime decline.
A New Generation
Aside from the crime drop itself, there is perhaps no better indicator of this transformation of generations than the change in illicit drug use. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the ingestion of hard drugs, primarily heroin and cocaine, had become the scourge of American cities. Drug use was not only a mark of social decay; it was itself a major cause of crime. It is estimated that in the late '60s, for example, about one quarter of heroin users committed robbery on a regular basis, primarily to support their habits.
The abandonment of hard drugs by a new generation of African-Americans, a generation raised by drug abusers and exposed to the worst of urban slum life, is itself a remarkable story. A multi-year study of over 13,000 arrested persons in New York City, overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican, demonstrated the dramatic change in drug use. The Justice Department funded the interviewing and urine sampling of Manhattan arrestees from 1987-97. Researchers thus were able to determine the proportion of offenders who were using drugs, and as significantly, the types of drugs they used and the ages of the users. The heroin injectors, it turns out, were born between 1945 and 1954. Arrestees born between 1955 and 1969, had turned to a new and more dangerous narcotic—"crack" cocaine—which, when heated in vials, produces a rapid and intense euphoria. By the mid-'80s, crack was all the rage, wiping out the mini-crime drop at the onset of that decade. Crack users repeatedly robbed to support their cravings, which recurred many times each day, as the cocaine high was rapidly and continually followed by a severe dysphoria. The most violent crimes—murder and aggravated assaults—were committed by the crack dealers and their enforcers. Crack helped drive to new heights murder and mayhem in our cities.
Then something quite surprising occurred. Among arrestees born in the late '60s and early '70s, crack cocaine use fell off dramatically. Nearly half of those arrestees who had been born in 1969 had used crack; that figure plummeted to 20% for those born in 1972. What's more, the rejection of crack "stuck" with subsequent cohorts of adolescents. The primary reason, researchers found, was
the negative role models in their lives. They clearly do not want to emulate their parents, older siblings, close relatives, or acquaintances who were ensnared by crack or heroin.... [I]t is the ravages that befell the HeroinGen and CrackGen that led them to avoid hard drugs. Those ravages include both deteriorating health as well as increased encounters with police and long prison terms. Thus, stepped up policing efforts may have hastened the transformation of the inner-city subcultures of drug use.
This new generation of African-Americans, fearing imprisonment, addiction, illness, and death, repudiated the worst of the drug menace. It was fear, the essence of deterrence, that changed the culture. And it was the same fear-borne intergenerational cultural change that would drive down crime.
Richard Curtis spent ten years, from 1987 to 1997, conducting ethnographic fieldwork in several Hispanic Brooklyn neighborhoods. He noted first-hand the devastation wrought by drugs, followed in the mid-'90s by what he called "an improbable transformation," a change motivated by fear of drugs and their consequences.
Many youth had intimate experience with the variety of problems that afflicted their elders as an outcome of involvement with cocaine, crack, or heroin, and they made a conscious attempt to avoid similar fates. Bubbler (seventeen years old in 1996), for example, had witnessed his mother's despair after two older, heroin-using brothers who worked for the corporate owners on Fishman Street became casualties of the war on drugs and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.... Rather than fulfilling the prophecy of becoming addicted and remorseless "superpredators," the overwhelming majority of kids who grew up in Bushwick in the late 1980s and early 1990s responded to the multiple threats of violence, crime, AIDS and addiction—as most Americans would likely do—by withdrawing from the danger and opting for the relative safety of family, home, church, and other sheltering institutions which persevered during the most difficult years.
The palpable change which washed over the neighborhood beginning in 1993 was initiated and carried through by young residents who, though far from uniform in their responses to those dangers, shared a conviction that they would not succumb to the same fate that nearly erased the preceding generation.
While Curtis is describing a poor Hispanic neighborhood, there is every reason to believe that similar events were occurring in black communities as well. There, not only did crime drop, but other social indicators point to significant positive change. Consider these changes in black youth during the 1990s, the period of the big crime drop:
- Regular church attendance by black 12th graders rose 22%.
- Pregnancy rates for black teens fell by nearly one-third.
- The number of black high school students who reported carrying weapons fell 52%.
- By 2003, more than three times as many white as black 12th graders reported using hard drugs.
- Between 1991 and 2000, the number of 12th graders reporting use of alcohol, cigarettes, or illicit drugs in the previous 30 days fell by 19% for blacks, 20% for whites.
- From 1997 to 2003, the rate of placement of male juveniles in residences, overwhelmingly because of juvenile delinquency, fell 24% for blacks, 5% for whites.
This account is not without its anomalies. The anti-crack generation didn't all join the church choir; recall that this same cohort was responsible for the crime spike of the early '90s. Nor did they entirely abandon drugs; many turned instead to the "softer" hallucinogen, marijuana. Clearly, however, they abandoned crime at an earlier age than the previous generation. And it is this change in black lower class culture, a nationwide and seemingly sudden development in the mid-1990s, that offers the best explanation for America's great crime decline.
Preserving the Peace
The African-American crime problem is not solved. There remain persistent and frightening pockets of violence in many of America's big cities. The latest crime figures, from 2000 to 2007, are mixed. While black teenage murder rates have risen 21.8%, the rates of the most homicidal group, African-American males ages 18 to 24, have fallen another 4.9%. Still, when we compare the latest figures to those of the early 1990s, the positive overall trends are unmistakable and quite remarkable.
We must, however, avoid the temptation of relaxing our anticrime policies. As crime historian Eric Monkkonen cautions:
The relaxation of the social effort to preserve peace will ultimately lead to rising violence. Then, on the upswing, there will be riots, new suspicion of big cities, and handwringing over the American character. The challenge for the next two decades is to maintain the social effort to preserve peace,...and to consider every homicide deterred a major success.
Just as black lawlessness from the late '60s to the early '90s threatened to unravel the social fabric of this country, the new black law-abidingness could, if we remain vigilant, put the United States on the road to sustainable crime control.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.