Analyzing race, crime and urban violence, after Ferguson: Research perspectives and data


Few public issues are more weighted with tragic history, negative stereotypes and complex social dynamics than the intersection of race and violence in America. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and the controversial legal fallout — and now with a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner — commentators and media members continue to formulate theories and opinions of all kinds.

Much of the focus has been on police use of force — and many say that’s where the attention should remain. But renewed attention has also come to the status of communities of color, levels of violence and problematic cultural images of criminality and dangerousness. In such a heated environment, it is well worth reviewing some of the relevant empirical data and recent studies on contextually important issues.

Demographics and difficult data

The deaths of Brown, Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio have resurfaced questions about stereotypes, racism and white public perceptions relating to young African-American males. The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that from 2002 to 2011 the “average homicide rate for blacks was 6.3 times higher than the rate for whites.” The homicide rate for black males was 31.67 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 7.13 per 100,000 for males generally, according to a Violence Policy Center analysis. (Historically, the homicide rate for all African Americans has dropped from 28.3 per 100,000 in 1950 to 19.5 per 100,000 in 2008.)

In general, about half of all black homicide victims are between the ages of 17 and 29. Between 1993 and 2005, rates of homicide among urban black males plummeted from a figure well above 80 per 100,000 to less than 40 per 100,000.

It should also be said, however, that some academic experts question whether government statistics are confounded by the rise of Hispanics in urban areas. A 2011 study published in the journal Criminology raises the possibility that “prior studies showing a shrinking Black share of violent crime might be in error.” (For more on possible measurement errors relating to race-specific homicide data, a 2014 paper in Homicide Studies provides further analysis.)

Finally, another dataset is also relevant here: A widely publicized report in October 2014 by ProPublica, a leading investigative and data journalism outlet, concluded that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts: “The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

Of course, statistics can only say so much — and they can obscure layers of important context. Alford A. Young, Jr. of the University of Michigan and William Julius Wilson of Harvard are just two of the dozens of scholars across the country whose extensive field research gets beyond the stereotypes, media hype and crime data, in order to examine the complex lived realities of African-Americans. Young’s 2004 book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men remains a touchstone work; Wilson’s most recent book is More than Just Race. Reporters exploring these and related issues would be well served to draw on deeper sociological research to contextualize such facts and figures.

Confusion over perceived danger, and media

Rates of violent crime generally have continued to fall across the United States. The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that rates of violent crime have plummeted over the past two decades, from roughly 80 incidents per 1,000 people in 1993 to 23 per 1,000 in 2013, a drop of approximately 71%. Although more than half of all homicides in 2011 involved males in urban areas (8,355 of 14,610), the largest cities have continued to see the most substantial declines in violent crime — a 23% decrease between 2002 and 2011. The Brookings Institution analyzed data covering the period 1990 to 2008 related to the 100 biggest urban areas and concluded that violent crime fell 21% and property crime twice as much, 42%. For example, in 1990 the urban core of St. Louis was seeing 6,323 violent crimes per 100,000 residents; by 2008, that figure had fallen roughly 40%, to 3,837 per 100,000.

One of the core problems of public discourse, and barriers to policy reform, is general confusion and unfounded fear among the public, a substantial portion of which almost always believes crime rates are up. The Pew Research Center has highlighted how the public seems unaware of the decline in gun violence, while Gallup continues to note that perceptions of crime are still “detached from reality,” despite marginal improvement:

Compared with previous decades, perceptions of crime in the U.S. have calmed somewhat. Still, majorities of Americans maintain that there has been an increase in crime from the previous year. Because Americans are more pessimistic about crime in the U.S. as a whole as opposed to their own localities, this could suggest that many base their views on what they hear about crimes that take place outside of their own hometowns. Some argue that consumption of news media plays a role in this by exposing Americans to crimes that they may perceive as more widespread than actually is the case.

This media problem is an age-old one, according to Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy: For example, between 1992 and 1994 the volume of news coverage about crime roughly tripled, fueled by several high-profile national cases. This in turn led to high degrees of concern about crime registered in public opinion polls, and lawmakers passed tougher sentencing policies and spent more on prisons. These events played out even as, according to Justice Department statistics, crime rates, including violent crime, were already falling. This legacy helps explain the large prison populations the country now sees and the negative consequences associated. And evidence suggests that this creates a “vicious cycle” of sorts: A 2014 Stanford study shows how awareness of higher levels of black incarceration can prompt greater support among whites for tougher policing and prison programs.

Advocacy and research organizations such as the Sentencing Project have analyzed the complicated relationship among public perceptions, media portrayals and support for policies. There is also a lengthy media criticism literature on topics such as how television news is more likely to portray young black men as lawbreakers.

Deeper research context

In terms of bringing greater understanding to this persistent problem for young African-American males, academic research can furnish a wider lens and more granular detail. Several recent papers in particular stand out and are worth reviewing:

  • Networks: A 2014 study published in Social Science & Medicine, by Andrew V. Papachristos, Christopher Wildeman and Elizabeth Roberto of Yale, analyzes data from Chicago. It finds that urban violence often takes place in highly interconnected social networks: “Seventy percent of all nonfatal gunshot injuries during a six-year period occurred in co-offending networks containing less than 6 percent of the city’s population. Furthermore, 89 percent of those victims were contained in a single social network of 107,740 unique individuals.” (This complements other new research that looks at violence as a kind of contagion or infectious disease.)
  • Underlying factors: A 2013 paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior, “Explaining Black–White Differences in Homicide Victimization,” formulates a “multiple disadvantage model” to try to understand differences in homicide rates. Authors Celia C. Lo, Rebecca J. Howell and Tyrone C. Cheng of the University of Alabama note that “homicide victimization results from key social problems that elude even the furthest reach of the criminal justice system.” Likewise, a 2010 study in the Journal of Urban Economics finds that the emotion of fear and preemptive acts of killing may be the driving forces behind high rates of violence.
  • Firearms: A 2007 study in the Economic Journal, “Underground Gun Markets,” by Philip J. Cook of Duke, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University and Anthony A. Braga of Harvard, provides an in-depth look at how the illicit weapons market actually works in the context of Chicago. They find that the “presence of substantial transaction costs and price mark-ups in Chicago’s underground gun market stand in contrast to conventional wisdom in the sociology and criminology literatures, which in the context of the US has emphasized the ease with which criminals can access guns in the informal market, as well as the inelasticity of demand by criminals.”
  • Wider context: Harvard’s Robert J. Sampson delivered a 2012 address to the American Society of Criminology in which he explored the role of neighborhood context, reviewed the major ideas in the field and sketched out a “unified framework” for understanding. His central idea is that, to truly understand complex phenomena such as violent crime, researchers must “relentlessly focus on context, especially concentrated neighborhood inequality and social stratification by place.”

Related: For those teaching in this area, see the model syllabus “Reporting Race, Gender and Diversity in America” for useful readings and lessons.

Keywords: racism, African-American, urban violence, police brutality, crime

    Writer: | Last updated: December 3, 2014


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