One of the great mysteries of 20th century America is the steep rise in violent crime that began in the 1960s, ravaged the country for nearly three decades, and then suddenly and drastically declined by the late 1990s. For those born, like me, too late to have experienced first-hand the worst of this crime wave and the fear it engendered, it is difficult to conceptualize just how great a role it played in shaping American politics and day-to-day life. The exponential growth America’s prison population, the billions spent in the “war on drugs,” the ghastly videos of police brutality caught on video – all owe their purchase in contemporary society, in whole or in part, to the explosion of violent crime. In 2015, when American criminologist Barry Latzer first published his The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, the headlines were again dominated by violence as a serious of high-profile cop killings of unarmed black men – and the nationwide protests these engendered –rocked the country. A criminologist and professor of criminal justice, with a background both prosecuting and defending accused criminals, Latzer is well placed to offer this sweeping history of crime in America.
The first question most people have, given the historic reversals in the rate of violent crime, is whether or not we can expect our current period of relative calm to continue, or if yet another sudden and unexpected crime outbreak awaits us in the near future. Understanding the history of crime, and closely examining the factors that influenced its rise and fall, helps us to answer this question, or at least make an educated guess. Two facts about crime, obvious enough to most people but easily overlooked nonetheless, are true all over the world, and must be foregrounded in any valid attempt at prognostication: crime – and particularly violent crime – is overwhelming the pursuit of young men. So, when society experiences a massive expansion in its young male demographic – as America did after World War II – it likewise experiences a massive growth in the population most liable to break the law; conversely, in the decades following periods of infertility – such as the 1950s, when the much smaller generation of men born during the Great Depression began to come of age – violent crime plummets. So consistent is this association between age, men and criminality that, in the immediate aftermath of both World Wars, when large numbers of American men returned home, there was an appreciable uptick in violent crime.
One of the most cherished explanations for crime among bien pensants – that it is a symptom of poverty – is closely examined by Latzer, and found wanting. There is, it is true, a correlation between poverty and crime, insofar as the middle class produces very few criminals and the lower classes very many, but when you attempt to graph crime in relation to the economy through the years, or when you compare similarly disadvantaged subgroups, the correlation vanishes. For example, the “Roaring Twenties,” a boom period in America’s economy, nonetheless saw a massive rise in crime, whereas during the 2008 financial crisis, a recession second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s, crime continued on its downward path. These may be in part because violent crime – which, though it encompasses armed robbery, also includes murder, rape and assault – rarely has monetary gain as its chief motivation. 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.” These factors, on the whole, are not subject to the vicissitudes of the economy. But the real fatal blow to the poverty-crime relationship is delivered by examining different subgroups in America, while holding income constant. So, for example, there was a shocking disparity in the crime rates of early 20th century immigrant groups: the Germans, Scandinavians and Jewish immigrants committed crimes at a rate well below the national average, whereas the Irish, Italian and Mexican immigrants managed to commit crime at rates well above the national average.
To Latzer, as to many other modern criminologists, these disparities point to cultural differences as being the ultimate culprits, and one of the most intriguing examples of such a difference is provided by the historic contrast between crime in the northern and southern United States. The American South has long had a higher rate of violent crime, and a higher murder rate in particular, than the northern states. Latzer attributes this to the tradition of “retributive folk justice,” picking up a theory I first encountered in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature and Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which argues that the American South, more agrarian and less rural than the North, was slow to experience the benefits of an impartial justice system, and therefore relied for a longer time on an “honour culture,” whereby an injured party was duty-bound to avenge his own wrongs. Following both Pinker and Sowell, Latzer extends this hypothesis to explain what remains the most controversial and painful aspect of crime in America: the over-representation of black men as both victims and perpetrators. However uncomfortable the discussion may be, or how impolitic, the disparities cannot be gainsaid. Consider the following:
Nationwide, from 1976 to 1988, blacks were victims of violent crime at a rate of 42 per 1,000; for whites, the rate was 31. In over 80 percent of the single-perpetrator cases, the offender was also black.
Over a twenty-year span, from 1976 through 1995, African Americans committed a majority of the criminal homicides in the United States – 53.2 percent of them, to be precise. This is quite extraordinary, given that during this period, blacks comprised around 12 percent of the U.S. population. But this excessive black murder rate was not a new development. African American homicide had been exceptionally high, at least since the late 1880s. In the 1920s, black homicide rates were, on average, seven times those of whites. From 1976 through 1995, they were eight times the white rate.
Adding to the controversy, Latzer digs into the data on victimization rates, and finds that, after the 1960s, “though the magnitude of intraracial victimization grew with black crime rates, the new and most significant development was white victimization.” Of “stranger killings” (a murder in which the perpetrator is unknown to the victim), for example, between 1976 and 2005, he finds that an astonishing 18.8% involved a black perpetrator and a white victim, whereas the reverse – a white perpetrator and a black victim – occurred only 5% of the time. When he examines muggings, the disparities grow even larger.
In the early stages of the book, Latzer acts as more of an historian than a criminologist, tracing all of the most consequential developments in American society, from the wars to the growth of the economy, to the widespread ownership of automobiles and the subsequent suburbanization of America; the immigration of high-crime and low-crime groups; and the migration of black America from the rural South to the urban North. Every development is accompanied with graphs and statistics culled from the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Center for Health Statistics, the FBI and other reputable sources, and to read his bibliography – well over 100 pages – is to understand at a glance how much research went into the writing of this book. None of this, of course, will help him avoid controversy, or the chorus of calumny that descends on anyone foolish or daring enough to cover crime as comprehensively as he has, but neither do those voices undermine this provocative and thoroughly educating overview of a difficult topic.
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