Friday, December 15, 2006

Hype and Hope about murder

Jill Leovy,a reporter for the LA Times, has a very intresting article in SALON--"Don't Believe the Hype about murder." She examines the extraordinarily high murde rates affecting young black males, but says that much of the conventional wisdom about gangs, teenage mothers, etc. making the problem much worse thanin the past is just plaing wrong.

The real story of black male homicide is that the historic disproportion between black and white death rates is shrinking, and it has been -- albeit unevenly -- for a long time.

The disproportion between white and black death rates reaches back deep into American history. Historians Roger Lane and Eric Monkkonen, for example, both found markedly higher homicide rates among blacks in analyzing data from 19th century American cities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Preventon began keeping statistics for blacks as a separate group only in 1950. The agency's count shows that homicide death rates for black men then were 28 percent higher than in 2003 and 12 times the white male rate. Spikes in these rates came in the early 1970s, around 1980, and again in the recession years of the early 1990s. Each spike was roughly as high as the last. But running through these spikes is a gradual long-term trend of lower rates and racial convergence.

This suggests we need to take another look at the widespread assumptions that urban violence is the byproduct of modern street gangs, single-parent black families, crack cocaine and the proliferation of handguns. These things matter. But so do deeper and more enduring factors. The reality is that blacks in 1976 were almost twice as likely to die from homicide as blacks in 2004, and the disparity between black and white rates was 20 percent higher than today.

She concludes with this observation:
History suggests that we should be wary of any claims about some unprecedented spiral into nihilism in the inner city, since such claims are perennial. History suggests that it is worth asking questions different from the ones we have been asking, and that we should take the longer view.

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