Racial inequality and the black homicide rate

I had the privilege of attending the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing Conference last week. The America Healing initiative promotes racial healing to address racial inequity, and, in doing so, works “to ensure that all children in America have an equitable and promising future.”

At the conference, the honorable Mitchell J. Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, gave a moving, passionate, and brave speech about homicide in black communities. He challenged us to consider whether we devalued black lives by not paying sufficient attention to the more common forms of homicide in black communities, and instead reserved our activism for homicides that could be conceived of as involving racism.

Landrieu made an important point, but I think he also missed a number of other significant points. The black homicide victimization rate is six times the white rate, so this is clearly a worthy issue to address. But, it is important to note that the black homicide victimization rate was cut in half from 1991 to 1999. It declined 49 percent while the white rate declined 39 percent. Too often we assume that things are always getting worse. It is beneficial to acknowledge this dramatic positive change, while also acknowledging that there is much more to be done. Since the 1990s, however, the black and white homicide rates have basically been flat.

Landrieu failed to acknowledge that much of the work done by the participants of the conference, if successful, is likely to reduce homicide rates. Homicide rates are driven by a very complex mix of psychological and sociological factors that are not yet completely understood by criminologists. Probably the majority of the conference attendees work in areas that have the potential to reduce homicide rates.

Some of the participants work to improve educational outcomes for blacks. Research suggests that increases in the educational attainment, particularly of males, will reduce homicide rates. (Males are more likely to commit homicide, and it is likely that their social and economic circumstances may play a big role in homicide rates.)

Healthy children do better in school and also have lower rates of criminal offending. All aspects of health, especially in the early years, probably matter, but we should be especially concerned about the very high rates of black children’s exposure to lead. There are strong links of lead exposure to violent crime. Thus, the participants who are concerned with reducing racial disparities in children’s health can also be seen as working to reduce homicide rates.

Concentrated economic disadvantage, poverty, and unemployment have all been found to be predictors of homicide rates. Participants working to improve the economic conditions of black communities can also be said to be working to reduce homicide rates.

A number of other aspects of racial inequity that the attendees to the conference work on are also likely to be drivers of higher black homicide rates. Thus, it is not accurate to say that the participants of the conference were not regularly working to address homicide.

Finally, while the mechanisms to reduce homicide rates are not yet completely understood, the response to bad policing, bad laws, and racial-biased individuals is clearer. In part, it may be for this reason that there can be highly visible mobilizations around these issues. A relatively quick mobilization might change bad police practices, undo a bad law, or change the behavior of a specific racially-biased person. Undoing racial inequity in all of the factors found to drive homicide rates—health, education, economics, and more—will require a longer and deeper struggle.

Some notes on a few references

Increases in the educational attainment of males appear to reduce homicide rates:

Julio H. Cole, and Andrés Marroquín Gramajo, “Homicide Rates in a Cross-Section of Countries: Evidence and Interpretations,” Population and Development Review, 35 (Dec 2009): 749-76.

Healthier black children have higher academic achievement:

Kenneth Y. Chay, Jonathan Guryan, and Bhashkar Mazumder, “Birth Cohort and the Black-White Achievement Gap: The Role of Access to Health Soon after Birth,” NBER Working Paper 15078 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2009).

The very high rate of lead exposure of black children likely leads to higher violent crime rates:

Elise Gould, “Childhood Lead Poisoning: Conservative Estimates of the Social and Economic Benefits of Lead Hazard Control,” Environmental Health Perspectives, 117(7), July 2009: 1162-1167.

Concentrated economic disadvantage is associated with higher homicide rates:

Ramiro Martinez, Jr., Jacob I. Stowell, and Jeffrey M. Cancino, “A Tale of Two Border Cities: Community Context, Ethnicity, and Homicide,” Social Science Quarterly, 89(1), March 2008: 1-16.

Lower-poverty neighborhoods seem to reduce violent behavior among teens:

Jens Ludwig, Greg J. Duncan, Paul Hirschfield, “Urban Poverty and Juvenile Crime: Evidence from a Randomized Housing-Mobility,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), May, 2001: 655-679.

Higher unemployment rates are associated with higher homicide rates; higher incomes and higher education are associated with lower homicide rates:

Mark Gius, “The Effect of Gun Ownership Rates on Homicide Rates: A State-Level Analysis,” Applied Economics Letters, 16, 2009: 1687–1690.