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Confronting the myth that “black culture” is responsible for violent crime in America

Conservatives are embracing a new book by a veteran criminologist that tries to blame “black culture” for violent crime. But there are big holes in the idea.

Walking through a major US city without serious fear of harm is one of those simple acts that many Americans now take for granted. On a Saturday night in Washington, DC, I can walk a few blocks from my old Columbia Heights apartment to an active shopping center filled with restaurants, pet stores, a Target, and more — with people drinking outside, others eating food from countries all across the world, and kids running around and playing in the plaza. I have done this walk multiple times, not once thinking about whether I would get shot or robbed.

Just a few decades ago, this would have been an unimaginable sight in this exact neighborhood. The area would have been largely abandoned. Many of the people going through the streets would have been darting through as quickly as possible. As was true in many US cities at the time, it was more likely — doubly so nationwide, based on violent crime figures — that around the corner could be a total stranger ready to take your watch, your wallet, and even your life.

One federal study put this in stark context, suggesting that if crime rates kept at the levels of the late 1970s and early ’80s, more than 80 percent of Americans aged 12 at the time would be victimized by a violent crime in their lifetime — rates impossible to fathom today.

The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, a new book by Barry Latzer, a criminologist at John Jay College, tells the story of how America went from the peaceful era of the immediate post–World War II period to the massive, decades-long crime waves of the 1960s through 1990s, and, finally, the relatively peaceful period we’re in today.

Latzer also offers an explanation for why crime was so high in previous decades and is now so low. His thesis is controversial: He says cultural factors may have more influence than anything else on violence levels.

Most controversially, he says a "black culture of violence" explains much of the crime rise: "[T]he black migration to cities, especially the big cities of the North, brought a culture of violence to the urban landscape. The effects of migration by a group with historically high levels of violence were compounded by the increase in young males within the African American population."

The thesis isn’t totally new. Conservatives, in particular, have long argued that culture contributes to the massive crime and violence problem seen in inner-city black communities. But Latzer offers a fairly prominent, scholarly example of this argument.

The book has not received much attention, but it has garnered praise from a certain segment of conservatives — leading to articles from David Frum at the Atlantic, the Federalist, and Breitbart about Latzer’s work.

The rest of America hasn’t paid much attention to the book. As Alfred Regnery wrote at Breitbart, "You would think that such a study would be warmly welcomed, written about and reviewed widely. But you would be wrong. Professor Latzer’s book has all but been ignored."

Perhaps some of that neglect is because, at face value, the book may seem like it’s just rehashing the same old issues. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prominent writer at the Atlantic, has written on the subject of "black culture" and crime time and time and time again. For journalists and scholars, having this debate so many times can get tiring.

Still, Latzer’s is a credible scholarly work that’s being taken very seriously by a significant faction of the American political spectrum. Just for that, it’s worth looking at what we can learn from the book and what it tells us about these ongoing debates, particularly as Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements continue across the US.

Latzer’s book is at its best — and most revealing — when it’s focused simply on the history of crime in America and, particularly, how it rose and fell through the latter half of the 20th century. But the book struggles to provide much insight when it focuses on "black culture." The term "black culture" is so vague to be at once unnecessary and useless at explaining exactly what’s going on in black communities. It’s also offensive — a broad, biased characterization of 13 percent of Americans.

Latzer tries to answer the big question in criminology today

The cover of The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America by Barry Latzer. Encounter Books via Amazon

Before diving into Latzer’s theory about "black culture," let’s look at what makes his book undeniably important: Latzer is trying to address a major gap in the study of crime.

There’s one big problem in just about any conversation about crime in America: We may know some causes of crime, but we don’t know all the causes.

This remains true even with the huge crime drop America has seen: Although many Americans lived through this big decline, we have no single concrete explanation for why, for example, murder rates plummeted from a high of 10.2 per 100,000 people in 1980 to 4.5 in 2014, the year with the most recent data.

It’s not that criminologists lack ideas to explain the crime drop of the past couple of decades. They’ve put forward all sorts of theories: mass incarceration, more aggressive policing, changes in the economy, the legalization of abortion, the drop in exposure to lead, and much more. All of these have research and experts lined up behind them and against them.

But you need to talk to only a handful of experts in the field to realize that virtually no one agrees on what were the biggest contributors to the rise and fall of crime. As criminal justice expert John Roman of the Urban Institute often tells me, he alone can think up at least 20 explanations — and they might not all match with all the ideas other experts are considering.

Part of the problem here, as criminologist Richard Rosenfeld has told me, is that there is no good source of data for violent crime in America. The best data collector in the field is the FBI, but that data comes out with a nearly one-year lag, and everyone agrees it’s likely underreporting crime. If researchers have a hard time collecting the basic raw crime statistics, how can they provide definitive answers for the reasons and trends behind those statistics?

This is where Latzer comes in. Latzer acknowledges that there’s a dearth of good data on all of these issues, but his book pulls together the scholarly work done despite the inadequate data to give a more systematic review of the research and fill in what we can learn and don’t yet know about fighting and preventing massive crime waves.

Latzer suggests that America’s recent crime drop was partly a result of a few significant changes: baby boomers aging out of their peak crime ages (teens, 20s, and 30s), and the escalation of the criminal justice system. Latzer writes that the boomers growing up "was the main reason for the end of the post-1960s crime tsunami."

When the boomers’ children came of age, there was, in Latzer’s words, "a shortterm crime wave." But this time, the criminal justice system kicked into high gear: "The pressures of police harassment, arrests, and high rates of imprisonment, combined with the consequences of the whole grim cocaine lifestyle, set off an anticrack craze — a positive contagion — and by the mid-1990s, the short-term spike was over. The great crime tidal wave was finally receding."

Latzer argues that the criminal justice system, rather than socioeconomic policies that tend to focus on solving poverty or improving education, keeps us safe from crime.

He also suggests that our current peaceful era won’t last forever. He quotes crime historian Eric Monkkonen: "When the murder rate ebbs, control efforts get relaxed, thus creating the multiple conditions causing the next upswing."

These are the beliefs that guide Latzer’s work throughout his book, as he explains the theories that he sees as most credible for why violent crime rose and fell in the post–World War II era. What Latzer says makes sense, although other criminologists will very likely poke holes in his review of the research and contest, in particular, claims that mass incarceration was a huge contributor to the crime drop. After all, the huge crime drop came decades after incarceration began to steeply rise, as criminal justice scholar William Stuntz argues in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.

But the most troubling aspect of Latzer’s book isn’t about these common debates over the rise and fall of violent crime. Rather, Latzer’s most concerning assertion is that "black culture" and its spread to big cities is a big reason that crime exploded in the 1960s and forward.

Is the cause of high crime in minority communities "culture"?

A black man lost in thought. Shutterstock

The book acknowledges that people who study crime tend to fall into two categories: those who believe crime is the result of systemic social problems such as economic inequality and racism, and those who blame crime on the pathologies and cultural problems inherent to certain groups of people — in Latzer’s words, who link "the beliefs and values of social groups to their crime rates."

Latzer seems to fall in between: He argues that "black culture" is more violent as a result of systemic racism.

He says that black Americans inherited a violent culture from white Southerners, the same people who enslaved and oppressed black people in the days of slavery and Jim Crow. (This provocative theory was also championed by Thomas Sowell, who wrote, controversially, about the historical development of what he described as self-destructive "black culture.")

Latzer supports this argument by pointing out that historically, crime rates among white Southerners have been higher than among white people in other parts of the country. To explain why, Latzer quotes the work of psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen:

Unlike the North, which was settled by farmers from England, Holland, and Germany, the South was settled by herdsmen from the fringes of Britain. Herdsmen the world over tend to be capable of great aggressiveness and violence because of their vulnerability to losing their primary resources, their animals. Also, unlike the North, where population densities have been in general relatively high, the South was a low-population frontier region until well into the nineteenth century. In such regions the state often has little power to command compliance with the law, and citizens have to create their own system of order. The means for doing this is the rule of retaliation: If you cross me, I will punish you.

Latzer argues that this, along with systemic oppression that black Americans have faced for generations, is the root of a violent "black culture."

From there, he walks through the rise in crime in big cities following the Great Migration’s end in the 1960s. Near the peak in 1990, the violent crime rate in New York City was close to 2,400 per 100,000 people.

The book claims that the essential change of the post–Great Migration era is that cities became predominantly black. "Insofar as crime is concerned," Latzer wrote, "the effect was to transport high levels of black violent crime to the big cities of the United States, with profound consequences for urban black communities and, ultimately, for the entire nation."

But Latzer doesn’t quite say how his "black culture" argument fits into the recent crime drop. Crime has fallen quickly in big cities in recent decades as their black populations barely changed or actually grew.

For example, Philadelphia’s murder rate fell from 31.7 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 20.1 per 100,000 in 2010 as the percent of its population that's black grew from 39.9 percent to 43.4 percent. New York City’s murder rate, meanwhile, plummeted from 30.7 to 6.6 as its black population dropped slightly from 28.7 percent to 25.5 percent.

And this isn’t the only problem with the "black culture" argument.

Or does systemic racism explain higher crime in black communities?

Where Latzer gets into trouble is that he’s broadly calling something "culture" that really may be thousands of causes of crime, some of which we may not know about or can’t measure in hard numbers.

Consider one of these possible factors: Black communities may be more violent and crime-ridden in response to a criminal justice system that has both under- and overpoliced them. In the fantastic Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy draws on the stories of police officers and black residents in violence-torn parts of Los Angeles to weave a nuanced story of how the justice system deals with crime depending on the community involved.

Leovy writes that police often harass black people for petty crimes — such as drugs, jaywalking, traffic rules, and loitering. But when black people most need police to prevent and solve violent crimes, they are not present. Investigations have found, for instance, that homicides involving black victims are much less likely to be solved than those with white victims. It’s a two-sided coin of systemic racism.

"Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder," Leovy writes. "It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate."

The result: Only 30 percent of black people reported "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police during a 2014-'15 period, versus 57 percent of white people, according to Gallup.

The criminal justice system has abandoned the most significant needs of black people, while fostering resentment and distrust with excessive policing of small crimes. In the face of this, black communities have turned to their own means — including violence — to solve conflicts that would normally be solved in courts.

(As Latzer notes, "Murder and its junior partner, assault, are in the main precipitated by anger, sexual jealousy, perceived insults and threats, long-standing personal quarrels, and similar issues, frequently facilitated by alcohol or some other disinhibiting substance.")

After all, preventing interpersonal conflicts is the main reason for the criminal justice system’s existence. Leovy writes:

In the dim early stirring of civilization, many scholars believe, law itself was developed as a response to legal "self-help": people's desire to settle their own scores. Rough justice slowly gave way to organized state monopolies on violence. The low homicide rate of some modern democracies are, perhaps, an aberration in human history.

Indeed, Latzer acknowledges this. In The Code of the Streets, Elijah Anderson analyzed the reality that many black people in violent neighborhoods live under and the grim rules ("the code") they’ve adopted that essentially allow violence to solve disputes the law can’t be trusted to take care of. Citing Anderson’s work, Latzer writes:

The code also was a product of the perception that law enforcement can’t or won’t control violent crime. "Feeling they cannot depend on the police and other civil authorities to protect them from danger," residents adhere to "a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, particularly violence. The rules prescribe both proper comportment and the proper way to respond if challenged."

But how do you prove anything like this empirically? How do you measure the actual, full impact of systemic racism or distrust in law enforcement? Mathematical models are very advanced nowadays, but they can’t explain everything. We still don’t even fully know why crime rose and fell during the period Latzer looks at — something Latzer acknowledges. So how can we be expected to measure something as abstract as the effects of distrust or a systemic force that has existed since America was founded?

And there are many more factors to crime in black communities: disproportionate rates of povertyracial segregation that leads to concentrations of poverty in their neighborhoods, horrible social mobilityjob discrimination, and so on.

With all these complicated issues that can be hard to untangle, a term like "culture" seems to provide an easy answer. It helps put a concept, however abstract, to the hard-to-explain. But the vagueness of the term presents a serious problem — suggesting that Latzer is putting a diverse group of people into a monolithic culture.

The problem with the "black culture" argument

Chicago police cars. Scott Olson/Getty Images

All of this can sound pedantic, but it’s important. In studying this history and getting it right, we can learn from what worked and what didn’t. So in looking at the unfortunate reality of high crime in black communities, getting into the nitty-gritty of what’s going on — instead of just broadly applying a vague label like "culture" — is crucial to learning how to fix all of this.

For example, if the problem is really a mix of under- and overpolicing, there are policy reforms the country can take on to address this. We know how to make police officers more effective — by working with the community to focus resources on very specific troubled areas and individuals. And we know there are policy changes that could help build trust between the police and black neighborhoods — such as cops working more closely with the people who live there, and police taking their communities’ criticisms more seriously. These ideas can work together to reduce crime and improve trust.

But if the issue is "culture," as Latzer argues, that’s a much more abstract problem that can’t be definitively addressed with policy solutions — and in fact might dissuade reform. As Latzer writes, "Cultures of violence may persist for decades, even centuries, and travel with their bearers."

In light of this, the continued punitiveness of the criminal justice system may seem like the right answer — and that’s exactly what many conservatives would like. After all, in the face of an inherently violent culture that could last centuries, why should a system meant to protect us all relax in any way? Mass incarceration and aggressive policing are needed, from this view, to put away people fundamentally corrupted by their culture.

(It’s not just conservatives, either; this is the kind of logic that led Hillary Clinton to speak out against violent teenage "superpredators" in the 1990s, when her husband, as president, enacted "tough-on-crime" laws.)

Applying a broad label also seems far more counterproductive, misleading, and even insulting than it is useful.

For one, the term "black culture" suggests it’s inherent among all black people. That’s just not true, considering a majority of violent crime is committed by a small fraction of the population. If this is something that was pushed on a small minority of black Americans by white people’s prejudice, can it really be described as "black culture"?

In fact, there’s no reason to think the violent cultural traits that Latzer describes are even "black," as the term "black culture" suggests. As Leovy wrote in Ghettoside: "Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens."

Yet many people do use this term to bash black Americans. Blaming "black culture" is a common form of coded language that politicians and pundits use to get away with explicitly racist messages — from crime to immigration and terrorism.

Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politicsexplained: "Current racial code operates by appealing to deep-seated stereotypes of groups that are perceived as threatening. But they differ from naked racial terms in that they don't emphasize biology — so it's not references to brown skin or black skin." He added, "It allows people to say, ‘Hey, I'm just criticizing the behavior, not criticizing a racially defined group.’"

The "culture" label also doesn’t give any information to fully understand these issues. This is a problem in Latzer’s book more broadly — what he means by "culture" remains very vague, and he never provides any clear solutions to these supposed cultural problems.

Still, Latzer provides much-needed context for why the justice system turned into a punitive behemoth

A police line. Larry Smith/Getty Images

Despite the troubling discussion of "black culture," Latzer’s history is valuable in detailing why policymakers in the 1960s through 1990s reacted harshly to crime with policy prescriptions such as mass incarceration, which are now under a lot of scrutiny today. Latzer makes it clear the punitive measures were, despite the racially disparate effects, a reaction to a genuine fear of crime.

Latzer cites a notable set of statistics to demonstrate this point:

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics once calculated, based on crime victimization rates from 1975 to 1984, the lifetime chances of being raped, robbed, or assaulted. The numbers were astounding. If crime rates remained the same (which, of course, they didn’t), 83 percent of all Americans aged 12 at the time would, in their actuarial lifetimes, be victimized by an attempted or completed violent crime, and 40 percent would be injured as a result of a robbery or assault.

These are the kind of numbers that the public, media, and lawmakers worried about in the '60s through '90s. Rates of violent crime and drug use, particularly during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, really were unusually high, as federal statistics show. And the public knew it: Gallup’s polling shows Americans in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and especially the early '90s were much more likely to say that crime was "the most important problem" facing the US.

Chart of percent of Americans who said crime is "the most important problem."

But in their fears of these statistics, policymakers embraced a tremendous escalation of the criminal justice system. This escalation had dire effects: The US now incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. Black people are nearly six times as likely to be locked up as their white peers, with only about 61 to 80 percent of that overrepresentation explained by higher crime rates in black communities.

The racial disparity is one of the major explanations for black Americans’ distrust of the criminal justice system. It is, in other words, one reason that people in these communities may feel the need to take the law into their own hands — sometimes leading to more violent crime.

But were the racially disparate results that have led to this distrust deliberate — the "new Jim Crow," to use a term popularized by Michelle Alexander’s book of the same name? Latzer’s history suggests they weren’t, since policymakers — including black leaders — were reacting to a real crime wave. This is an important point of clarification for political discourse, demonstrating just how vast a well-meaning policy’s unintended consequences can be.

The history suggests that the next time someone develops a policy that leads to big racial disparities, the perpetrator won’t necessarily be an outright racist villain that Americans can readily see through. Instead, it will likely be someone who really has good intentions and is genuinely trying to solve the problems of the day — but is not thinking enough about the downsides and possible unintended consequences.

So to avoid more policies as disastrous as mass incarceration, Americans need to be well aware of that possibility of bad consequences despite good intentions. Otherwise, a new round of criminal justice policies, like the old, could cause the exact problems in black communities and high levels of crime that The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime worries so much about.


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