President Trump has been strongly criticized for suggesting that federal troops might be needed to combat the increased killings in many urban neighborhoods. Critics point to a 40 percent jobless rate for black men in central cities. To reduce killings, they claim, joblessness must be reduced.
But the facts show otherwise. The data suggest that violent crime rates in American cities primarily reflects a subculture embraced by a small core of black men and has little to do with employment opportunities. For 34 of the largest cities, the figure below indicates the relationship between each city’s share of black men, 20 to 34 years old, and its 2014 violent crime rate. Using multiple regressions, the correlation is highly statistically significant, while the citywide jobless rate is not. These findings indicate that the racial composition of young men is a strong predictor of a city’s violent crime rate than labor market conditions.
Many criminologists will claim that this correlation is spurious because they embrace what is called a race-crime invariance thesis. This is the belief that neighborhood structural differences explain virtually all crime differences between white and black communities. For instance, Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo contend that,
"Crime rates are higher on average in African American than other neighborhoods, not because this group is more criminally oriented, but because African American communities have the highest average levels of disadvantaged social conditions owing to the role of race in structuring opportunity and community access."
Not all criminologists agree, particularly with respect to violent crimes. Steffensmeier et al. suggest “caution and uncertainty about the notion that structural sources of violence affect racial/ethnic groups in uniform ways.” They presented evidence based on 232 census tracts. Each of these census tracts was almost exclusively black, white, or Hispanic. They computed the share of individuals living in poverty in each of these tracts and compared it to the violent crime rate there. I have reproduced their figure below (Figure A1).
The figure does indicate that black and white census tracts have slightly higher violent crime rates as the level of census tract poverty increases. However, at each poverty concentration level, the violent crime rate is substantially higher in black than in white census tracts. Moreover, there are many Hispanic census tracts with high poverty concentration levels but relatively low rates of violent crime.
Steffensmeier et al. also found the same patterns when looking at the relationship between unemployment and violent crime rates. Holding unemployment rates constant, black census tracts had much higher violent crime rates than either white or Hispanic ones. Reflecting on these patterns, they pointed out:
"Most of the higher violent crime places are predominantly black, even at more moderate levels of disadvantage, and that even the higher disadvantage predominantly white and Hispanic places tend to fall lower in the violence rate distribution. This pattern, along with the differences we found in the effects of disadvantage on violence suggests that racial/ethnic disparities in levels of disadvantage are only part of the story regarding race/ethnic differences in violent offending."
Within black communities, there are particularly high rates of gun violence. Although blacks comprised about one-fifth of the share of New York City’s young men, 2012 police data show they were responsible for three-quarters of all the gun violence. As a result, young black men are more likely to be exposed to an oppositional street culture — one that not only endorses violence as means of conflict resolution, but also contributes to a social environment where firearm violence is more common.
This violence was vividly documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the first pages of The Beautiful Struggle, Coates declares that 5 percent of the young people living in Baltimore's poorest sections (“1 in 21”) were killed annually. Coates notes: “Conflicts bloomed from a minor remark or misstep, and once in motion everyone stayed cocked and on alert.” In Between the World and Me, Coates presents a riveting account of the time “a boy with small eyes” pointed a gun at him for no apparent reason. “I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing on a boyish afternoon, billow up like the fog.”
Sociologist Mark Berg observes that, in this kind of environment, many “decent youths adopted a violent public posture — even though it violated their own personal beliefs in conventional norms — in order to deter the aggressive overtures of other youths in their neighborhood.” Again, Coates gives a vivid example. As a young man in a middle-school “gifted” program, Coates was vulnerable to his more brutal peers. For a time Coates avoided fights: “My style was to talk and duck.” But, eventually, he could not talk his way out of trouble. When hit in the face, he “busted out crying.” The news of this reverberated around the school. Coates recounted:
"From then on, I was the weakest of the marks, and my weakness was despised. By the gifted kids, most of all. Some of my whippings were just macho show, but mostly they were pure logic…I didn't make many more friends on the Marshall Team that year. The few that I did could never understand why I would not fight."
The violent behavior of some black men also affects their personal relations. For instance, it has been estimated that, during the 1990s, the black intimate violence rate was 43 percent higher for black than white women. Black teen mothers on welfare were especially vulnerable.
Some scholars, including Frank Furstenberg and his colleagues, have also suggested that black women during this period may have been at risk for unwanted pregnancies, which were strongly associated with younger teens entering coercive sexual relationships with older men. My own study with Chun Wang found a strong link between male employment rates of 20–24 year olds and birth rate for 15 to 17 year olds that may reflect these coercive relationships.
Furstenberg et al. also concluded subculture norms put enormous peer pressure on very young black men to be sexually active. This in turn, “has implications for females who are exposed in their early teens to sexually experiences and some have argued, sexually demanding partners.” This might help explain why the Civil Liberties Union found that in 2006 black Americans comprised 15.9 percent of the New York population but 37.2 percent of Level 3 sex offenders.
Child maltreatment rates are lower for black than white single mothers living alone. And where no partner is present, the rate is one-third lower for black single mothers than for whites. However, when a male partner who is not the father is present, the rate of child maltreatment is almost double that of whites. This, too, may suggest a pattern of violent behavior at least among a subset of young black men.
Liberals are, perhaps understandably, sensitive about these hot-button issues, and will often try to counter negative stereotypes of violent and abusive young black men. Witness the condemnation of Hillary Clinton back in 1996 for using the term “super-predator” to describe the behavior of some young black men. But we must determine which factors within the black community, besides extreme social disadvantage, may be causing some young men to commit violent crimes.
Conservatives, meanwhile, often focus only on the small cohort of black men who perpetrate violent crimes. In reality, a much larger percentage commit petty crimes, often in order to survive and likely in response to economic hardship. There are 100 times more burglaries than murders annually. Moreover, there is a significant link between male employment and child maltreatment rates. As a result, a significant portion of the resulting racial disparities is caused by the disproportionally high jobless rates among black men, just as poverty explains a significant share of the racial disparities in intimate violence rates. But important as these facts are, they should not lead us to overlook other potential causes of violent crime in the black community.
What does this mean for public policy? The Trump administration must balance efforts to combat violent crime with efforts to reduce the joblessness black men face.
Robert Cherry is professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.