True Crime: A Different Way of Thinking about Homicide

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AUGUST 10, 2005

True Crime: A Different Way of Thinking about Homicide

The murder of large numbers of innocent people in a very short time span has become an infuriating and regular feature of contemporary life. Recently, such murders have been carried out by radical Islamists in Israel, Iraq, England, and Egypt. Last month we marked the tenth anniversary of the massacres at Srebenica, and just over a year ago, the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide.

Yet there is another kind of killing that receives far less attention as a distinct historical phenomenon. I am referring to the staggering number of homicides that have taken place in the United States since the 1960s--particularly black-on-black homicides. Even though the national crime rate has been declining for some time, it has been a grim period in the Washington area for those most vulnerable to crime. On July 30th, Prince Georges County, on the border of Washington, DC recorded its 100th homicide of the year, an increase of almost 25 percent compared to this time last year. Meanwhile, Washington recorded a record number of juvenile homicides last year with 24 victims. Ninety-six percent of homicides victims in D.C. were African-Americans. Historical trends over the past four decades suggest that the overwhelming majority were the victims of black on black crime. All of which led District Police Chief Charles Ramsey to speak out against "black on black crime" several months ago: "The African-American community has to be central in the solution because that is where the problem lies and that is the community being hurt the most by this genocide," he said. "You've got generations of dysfunction, and that cycle has got to be broken."

Ramsey's use of the word "genocide" was striking. Strictly speaking, of course, he is wrong: Black on black crime is not genocidal. Nor is it analogous to the work of suicide bombers or ethnic cleansers that these days fills the evening news; those crimes, after all, involve the deliberate targeting of a particular group of people in order to see that group politically cowed or, in some cases, extinguished. But for all the ways they are obviously different, black-on-black crime shares one thing in common with politically motivated murder: It is a discrete historical phenomenon, an epidemic that has resulted in the untimely deaths of many thousands of members of a particular group.

And yet, it is almost never reported that way by journalists--and almost certainly not viewed that way by most Americans. So the recent juxtaposition of news about Washington's murder rate and bursts of international carnage caused me to wonder: Why is the forty-year-long explosion of black-on-black homicide not regarded in American political and historical consciousness as a phenomenon unto itself--even though the total number of victims exceeds that of many other episodes of mass murder. 

It's true that the total number of homicides in the United States since the 1960s is alarming even if you don't account for race; but the age of murder has been particularly horrific among African Americans. In July 1968, the editors of The New Republic penned an editorial about the rising murder rates in Chicago titled, "Who Pays for Violence?" The editors wrote that all groups were being threatened with "alarmingly high" rates of violence, but that "the particularly high cost of violence to the Negro community should be noted." That particularly high cost was merely the beginning of what would become 200,000 murders over four decades. Perhaps it is time we begin to think of black-on-black crime the way we think of international terrorism and ethnic cleansing: as an epidemic of historical proportions, one whose demise liberals have an obligation to seek.

First, some statistical background. The good news, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which summarizes FBI arrest and Justice Department victim survey data, is that since 1992, homicide rates have "declined to levels last seen in the late 1960s." From the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, the homicide rate nearly doubled. In the midst of various drug and gang wars, it peaked in 1980 at 10.2 murders per 100,000 population and then fell off to 7.9 per 100,000 in 1984. From 1992 to 2,000 the rate declined sharply. "Since then," according to BJS, "the rate has been stable" at slightly over 6 murders per 100,000.  Between 1976 and 2002, the total number of people murdered in the United States was 544,885.  The murder rate began to increase in the mid 1960s. Between 1965 and 1975, 175,100 homicides occurred. Hence, from 1965 to 2002, according to the BJS figures, 719,995  persons were murdered in the United States.

That's the grim picture for the population as whole. For blacks, the story is particularly horrific. The BJS delicately but clearly asserts a basic reality about homicide and race in the United States: "The demographic characteristics of homicide victims and offenders differ from the general population." Between 1976 and 2002, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely to commit homicide than whites. According to the FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports, from 1976 to 2002, 45.9 percent of homicides were committed by whites, 52.1 percent by blacks, and 2 percent by others--this during a time when blacks made up, on average, 12.2 percent of the population. Whites, meanwhile, were 51.1 percent of the victims and blacks were 46.8 percent, while 2.1 percent were "other." The raw figures were as follows: white on white homicides, 168,345; white on black, 10,207; black on white, 26,727; and black on black, 162,190. Although black on white homicide was two and a half times as great as white on black homicide, murder overwhelmingly took place within, rather than between, races. Between 1976 and 2002, 86 percent of white victims were killed by whites, and 94 percent of black victims were killed by blacks. Based on the above figures, we can extrapolate the figures for blacks who were murdered by other blacks back to 1965. This adds an addition 77,362 victims. Hence between 1965 and 2002 approximately 239,500 black Americans have been murdered by other black Americans. If the murder rate of white on white homicide had been as high, the number of whites murdered by whites in the United States since 1965 would have been approximately 1.2 million people

These figures about homicide and about homicide and race are well known to law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal level, are readily available at the Bureau of Justice Statistics website, and have been extensively analyzed by sociologists and criminologists. Yet journalists rarely present the overall total to the public. The scholarly literature is often highly technical and preoccupied with theoretical and statistical debates about what has caused the disproportionate rates of homicides within black neighborhoods. Globalization, outsourcing, job loss, and high unemployment; drugs and drug wars; marital breakdown and family dysfunction; deepening economic inequality between middle class African Americans benefitting from enhanced economic opportunities and an underclass left behind in the cities; and easy access to all kinds of firearms are among the most common explanations offered by a host of distinguished social scientists.

Spasms of mass death, of course, are not just the responsibility of those who orchestrate them but also of those who fail to stop them, and in the case of black on black crime, there is plenty of blame to go around. If the rate of white on white homicide had ever approached even the reduced levels of black on black homicide that now prevail, there seems little doubt that the American political establishment would have long ago taken the measures needed to bring it to an end. Moreover, if this terrible toll was the result of white on black murder, there probably would have been calls for the United Nations to intervene. The fact that overwhelmingly young black males were responsible for killing the vast majority of black homicide victims muted the indignation that would ordinarily have come from liberals and critics from abroad. This acquiescence to political correctness on a matter of life and death was, and remains, morally inexcusable.

Bill Clinton, alone among the American presidents of the past four decades, understood, and tried to do something about, not only the overall rate of murder and but also the particular issue of black on black homicide. Putting 100,000 additional cops on the street was a good start. Clinton understood how to take such measures without adopting the racially charged message of "law and order" that did so much to put Republicans in the presidency during most of the age of murder.

In the academy, homicide has been the professional preoccupation of criminologists and sociologists. Yet now that they and government officials have done so much to help establish reliable crime statistics, it is up to historians of American and African-American history to incorporate this grim story into the broader sweep of our nation’s narrative. The important work of my colleague Ira Berlin referred to the "many thousands gone" in the slave trade and in slavery. Other historians have drawn abundant attention to the over 3,000 African Americans lynched by whites between the end of the Civil War the 1930s and to the murders of civil rights workers in the 1960s. All of these events, as the recent conviction of one of the murderers of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman showed, rightly occupy prominent places in our national memory.

Yet the terrible toll of black on black homicide since the 1960s has yet to find its historian--or to loom as large in the nation’s memory and public discourse. In literature and film, there are only a few exceptions to this widespread neglect of the issue. Richard Price’s novel Clockers and Spike Lee’s film adaptation of it, as well as the work of the writers and actors of the superb HBO television series The Wire,come to mind. Yet on the whole, our ubiquitous television crime dramas have addressed the issue as isolated incidents while avoiding the full extent of mass death in our midst.

Perhaps this is because, unlike genocides or terrorist attacks or even long-ago events like slavery, the full dimensions of homicide trends across many decades remain difficult to grasp. Those who kill large numbers of people in relatively short bursts of barbarism understandably capture our attention: Six million Jews were murdered in Europe in four years between 1941 and 1945, sometimes several hundred thousand in a few months. Only a decade ago Serb militias murdered 7,000 Muslims in a matter of days in Srebrenica. In Rwanda, Tutu extremists murdered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days. Over 1,000 Israelis have been murdered in terrorist attacks, 445 by suicide bombers since 2000. Over 1,200 Iraqi civilians have been murdered by suicide terrorists this spring and summer alone. Almost 3,000 people were murdered on September 11, 2001. Over 50 people were murdered in London by suicide terrorists three weeks ago.

These horrifying numbers cannot conceal that individuals were cruelly murdered as one book about the Holocaust put it, "one by one." Yet, in fact, the victims of mass murder are killed less one by one than as part of a mass in enormous compressions of time and space that makes these episodes stand out in our mind. Historians of war also think and write a great deal about mass death in short periods of time with numbing figures: 400,000 to 500,000 dead in the Battle of Berlin, about 60 million dead in World War II as a whole, 10 million soldiers dead in World War I, 55,000 American soldiers and over a million dead Vietnamese soldiers and civilians in the Vietnam war.

There is important work for American historians to do in writing the history of this disgraceful period, in recalling its victims and drawing attention to their tormentors. It will not be easy work, for it does not fit into the familiar and now oft-told tale of white on black violence. Chief Charles Ramsey had the courage and intelligence to speak the blunt and bitter truth about race and homicide. Historians, journalists, government officials, and politicians should do no less. Moreover, the history of black on black crime over the last forty years is not only a historical story worth telling; it is also a practical question of public policy that deserves our attention, before many thousands more are gone.

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