On Crime and Gentrification

A New Lecture: “Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama” by Dr. Algernon Austin

The simplistic idea that impoverished African Americans have only themselves to blame for their poverty, due to their poor cultural values—a notion advanced by many, including black public figures such as Bill Cosby—is believable only if a blind eye is turned to those inconvenient things social scientists like to call “facts.” Algernon Austin soundly refutes the “culture of poverty” argument by paying careful attention to marco-economic data about long-term poverty trends and sociological case studies about persistent discrimination. In other words, unlike the glib punditry, Austin actually looks at the “facts.”
--Dr. Andrew Hartman, professor and audience member, Illinois State University

Contact Dr. Austin to arrange a speaking engagement.

It is easy to get the impression that America—and black communities in particular—are more violent than ever. We are regularly treated to gruesome crime stories on television news programs, and they often feature black perpetrators. When we are not watching the news, Law and Order, CSI, NCIS and other crime dramas fill our minds with murder and mayhem. When we go to the movies or play video games, the smorgasbord of crime and violence continues.

But contrary to popular perception, American crimes rates—including crime rates in black communities—are at historically low levels. What we see on television and movie screens is a very, very distorted picture of reality. Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group finds [PDF] that the “news media report crime, especially violent crime, out of proportion to its actual occurrence.” Further, she adds, “the proportion of crime committed by people of color (usually African Americans) is over-reported.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has recently reported that its preliminary estimate for violent crime in 2009 was down 4.4 percent from 2008. The FBI data shows that violent crime rate has declined fairly steadily since 1991. Crime stories sell, so more and more companies—including news networks—are selling crime stories. But the increase in crime stories is not matched by a real increase in crime.

The FBI data is based on reports from participating law enforcement agencies. Not every crime is reported to the police however. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a better source for overall crime trends. This survey too shows a strong downward trend.

Examining NCVS violent crime data from 1973 to 2007, one sees that the peak year for violent crime among blacks was 1981—nearly three decades ago. The black violent crime victimization rate fluctuated from then until 1993. Since 1993, the violent crime rate in black communities has declined by 70 percent! White communities experienced a similar decline—68 percent.

Although on average white communities continue to be safer than black communities, many black communities today are safer than white communities were in the 1970s and 1980s. The violent crime victimization rate for blacks in 2007 was 10.3 per 1,000 persons. In the 1970s, the victimization rate for whites averaged 19.5 per 1,000 persons—nearly twice the 2007 black rate.

I believe that one consequence of the fact many black communities are much safer today than in the past is gentrification. The New York Times recently reported that blacks are no longer the majority in Harlem. Gentrification of black neighborhoods has occurred across the country. I’ve seen it in Brooklyn, in Chicago, in D.C. and have heard of it occurring in many other cities.

Rents and homes in these black neighborhoods have always been less expensive than in similar white neighborhoods. What has changed was that over the 1990s and into the 2000s these neighborhoods have become much safer, as safe as or safer than many white neighborhoods were in the 1970s and 1980s. Relatively safe neighborhoods and lower rents = gentrification.

Of course, the national crime trends can differ significantly from local trends. Further, no violence is trivial, and black communities can and should still be much safer than they are today. With these caveats in mind, we should be able to take a moment and appreciate the positive development of a record low violent crime rate in black America.