Thomas Sugrue, writing in the New York Times op-ed page, calls the fear of crime cited by white Detroiters a pretext for racism:
Those who left the city cited various reasons: desire for a little green space, new housing, better schools, freedom from crime. Few of them acknowledged the racial motive behind white flight, that words like “freedom from crime” were code for moving away from blacks.
Coincidentally enough, the Times also has a report from the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood of Detroit, where residents are trying to hold their community together amidst a disintegrating city:
Beverly Jones, 48, a director of day care at a Baptist church, decided to move to the suburbs almost two years ago. She gave up on Grandmont Rosedale after her house was broken into for the fifth time and her son, who happened to be there, shot one of the burglars.
Somebody should have told Jones that her fear of crime was merely code for moving away from blacks.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, crime weighed heavily on the public mood, but liberals tended to dismiss it as mere code words for racism. One measure of the liberal mood is political movies like "The Candidate" and "The American President," [edit: I am mis-remembering the movie's premise] where virtuous liberal politicians candidly declare that crime is not a real issue at all.
In reality, there really was a huge explosion in the crime rate. In 1960, there were 161 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans. By 1980 that rate had risen to 597 violent crimes per 100,000, and it peaked in 1991 at 758 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans. (It has since fallen back into the 400s.)
Now, it's true that some expressions of fear of crime were and are coded racial fears. But the rise in crime was a real phenomenon, a terrifying one to many Americans -- especially those working class Americans least able to escape it -- and it's bizarre that some liberals still dismiss all fear of crime as coded racism. President Clinton ran on and implemented an anti-crime program, and the crime wave abated, though the relationship between those two things is probably mostly coincidental. In any case, the salience of crime as a political issue has collapsed. Doesn't that suggest that the fear of crime was not merely racial backlash but an actual response to, you know, rising crime?