Courtland Milloy Gets It Right

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Which of the following countries has the highest murder rate according to the most recent United Nations criminal justice data?

a. Costa Rica
b. Sri Lanka
c. Estonia
d. Thailand
e. United States

If you guessed the United States you would be wrong. The countries above are listed in rank order from highest homicide rate to lowest. Of the five, the United States has the lowest homicide rate.

It would be great to live in a society where there were no murders and no violence. Unfortunately, that society does not exist. Even the safest countries have a murder from time to time.

It is not realistic to expect the United States to go overnight from the 53rd highest homicide rate on the UN ranking to the 153rd, the bottom of the list of countries with available data. A more realistic goal is for the country to experience declines in the homicide rate year after year.

For the most part, this slow and steady decline has been occurring, yet one regularly hears commentators screaming that crime is out of control. These commentators never put crime in its proper context.

Recently, there was an unfortunate melee involving 70 people on the Washington D.C. subway system. The typical reaction was that everything is completely out-of-control, but Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post pointed out that as scary as the event was there were few serious injuries and no deaths. A decade or two ago, a similar event in D.C. would have been more likely to end with deaths.

In 1990, there were 472 homicides in Washington D.C.. By 1999, the number of homicides was basically cut in half to 241. By 2009, it was cut again to 143. Although there are fewer murders, the media covers each one more intensely that they did in the past, fueling hysteria.

Milloy also stated something that is never reported in the mainstream media:
H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made an observation about black youths some years ago that stuck with me: "From the age of 18 to 25, our kids go from being below the national average when it comes to crime and substance abuse to being above the national average," he said.

"There are certain things in our community that seem to be working until that kid reaches 16 or 17. Then, all of a sudden, their involvement in crime and substance abuse shoots up. So what happens? What in our community suddenly disappears?"
One answer is that other youths make a relatively smooth transition into the labor force but black youth do not. Marc Mauer addresses this in Race to Incarcerate.
While there are no dramatic differences in the degree to which black and whites become involved in violent offending at some point, there are significant differences in how long these violent behaviors persist. The NYS [National Youth Survey] data reveal that black males are nearly twice as likely as white males to continue committing violent offenses into their twenties and nearly four times as likely to be involved by their late twenties.

. . . The primary reason why young offenders cease their criminal activities, whether they be occasional or frequent, is essentially because, as they reach their twenties, many of them get married, go to college, find jobs, and generally take on adult roles, which they come to find more rewarding that street life.

But, for large numbers of young black men, these more positive lifestyle options are limited or more difficult to attain. . . . An analysis of the NYS data finds, for example, that among 18-20-year-old youth who are employed or living in a stable relationship with a spouse or partner, there are no significant differences in the persistence of offending by race, but that among black males who fail to attain this status, violent offending is more likely to continue. Thus, a key question becomes the degree of access to legitimate employment among males in their late teens and early twenties.
(p. 181)
The labor market is not friendly to black youth. The figure below shows the findings of a report from the Center for Labor Market Studies. For all racial groups, teens from poorer families are less likely to be employed than middle class teens. Hispanic teens, however, are less likely to be employed than white teens, and black teens are less likely to be employed than Hispanic teens. The race effect is so strong for blacks that black middle-class are less likely to be employed than poor white teens. This data is for Illinois only, but national data is very similar. What this means is that for teens, if you wish to find a job, it is better to grow up in a poor white family than a middle class black family.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2005-2010 by Algernon Austin. All Rights Reserved.