August 10, 2005

Homicide Through the Ages

On the New Republic's website today, Jeffrey Herf wants to know why the media doesn't pay nearly enough attention to black-on-black homicides—which, between 1965 and 2002 have claimed approximately 239,500 victims. Um... is this a serious question? I don't know, because there are all those missing white women to cover? On the other hand, one can imagine why liberals are so loath to bring it up: it plays right into the hands of neoconservative thinkers denouncing black culture and broken families, and only very rarely invites rational debate on the subject. That's no excuse, but it might be a reason.

Still, focusing solely on "the staggering number of [black-on-black] homicides that have taken place in the United States since the 1960s," as Herf does, seems a bit too narrowly-focused. Disproportionate black-on-black violence is as old as the republic itself, and was first noticed over 70 years ago by both W.E.B. DuBois and Edward Franklin Frazier. The phenomenon was particularly acute in the cities around the turn of the last century; here are some statistics compiled by James W. Clarke for Society back in 1996 (the article isn't online):
In nineteenth-century Philadelphia, for example, black homicides occurred at a rate of 7.5 per 100,000, compared to a white rate of 2.8. At the turn of the century, homicide rates among blacks were almost three times white rates. The same pattern could be observed in New York City, where from 1865 to 1900 black rates of homicide were more than twice the rates of whites. In Philadelphia during the 1920s, the black homicide rate was twelve times the rate for whites. By that decade, national estimates suggest that blacks were killing one another at nearly seven times the rate for whites. …

The figures were even more troubling during this period in cities where blacks were concentrating. In 1925, for example, the black homicide rate in Chicago was 103 murdered per 100,000 persons, compared to 11 for whites. This despite Chicago's reputation for organized white crime and gangsterism. In Cincinnati, the black rate was 190 per 100,000; in East St. Louis it was 229; in Miami it was a staggering 276.
It goes on and on. Why did this happen? Well, roll back the clock even further: Long before the big migration north in the 1920s, blacks in the South were killing each other at astonishing rate—in large part because whites could care less whether they lived or died. Southern courts did little to punish it, southern law enforcement less to break it up. Even well into the 20th century, black on black violence was condoned—often even encouraged—and as a result, black men did what all men, especially poorer and less-educated men, tend to do in the absence of restraint: they fought and killed each other, to settle disputes, or debts, or to fight over women, or whatever.

In the early 20th century, then, many blacks from the south migrated to northern cities in vast numbers—and were suddenly living in crowded and usually inadequate conditions—which, predictably, gave rise to further violence and death. Plus, thanks to the joys of mass production, cheap firearms became available for the first time in bulk, and blacks who, as a rule, couldn't count on police protection, readily armed themselves. Guess what happened next? At any rate, that was all a long time ago, true, but patterns that formed centuries back can still affect the shape of things today, and whatever the true causes of and solutions to black-on-black violence, it seems important to realize that this wasn't just some new phenomenon that suddenly erupted out of the 1960s.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 PM || ||