In a suburban nation enjoying declining rates of violent crime, we forget that not all places are created equal. Homicide in America remains concentrated in African American urban communities. In my city—Philadelphia—over 70 percent of homicide victims in 2008 were African American males, and 56 percent were African American men between the ages of eighteen and forty. At twenty-five per hundred thousand people, “Killadelphia” has the highest murder rate of the top ten American cities. According to a 2006 study, an African American male in North Philadelphia had a better chance of dying from violence than did a U.S. soldier in Iraq. This is not new; for more than a century African Americans have been disproportionately represented in homicide statistics. Let’s look at what we know about homicide (which may not be what we think we know), then at differing explanations for high rates among African Americans, and finally at some solutions.
During the nineteenth century, the rural South and West, not urban areas, had the highest homicide rates in the country. Armed white men, prickly about insults to their honor and fond of drink, slaughtered each other in alarming numbers and used extreme violence to maintain their supremacy over African Americans and Native Americans. Cow towns, the mining centers of the West, and the rural South had some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Cities were far safer places for Americans to live.
Homicide also declined over time, at both the national level and in cities. Although there was a spate of violence leading up to the Civil War, homicide rates fell at an irregular pace over the rest of the nineteenth century (with the exception of the South and West) and bottomed out during the 1930s and 1940s. The trend then reversed itself, beginning an almost meteoric increase from the late 1950s to the 1980s before falling again in the 1990s. Modern homicide rates are high, but there have been other eras and other places with higher ones.
Poverty is associated with homicide, but not directly. Unemployment, for example, has no demonstrable effect on the homicide rate, and poor communities do not necessarily have high homicide rates. Homicide dropped most dramatically during the Great Depression, perhaps because everyone was in desperate straits, as it had done during economic panics in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, homicide has been concentrated geographically in poor urban communities, perhaps because enduring poverty in a country of plenty is more galling than the temporary shared misery of economic downturns.
Homicide data confirm our expectations in one way: homicide is highly gendered. When we look across time and space, at preliterate peoples and at modern ones, at developing countries and at developed ones, at cities and at the countryside, we see that men commit approximately 90 percent of all homicides. The finding intrigues evolutionary psychologi...
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