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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #63, May 1994. It was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Crime wave!

Crime is hot again, reportedly having surpassed the economy in the public mind as problem number one, and the opportunist Clinton is all over the issue. In a February 15 Ohio speech to "members of the law enforcement community," the Effuser-in-Chief said the work of his audience "is probably more important to Americans today than it has ever been in the whole history of the country." The president concluded his speech with a multiply devious use of statistics (and some Bushian syntax as well): "And let me say, when I see what has happened in the crime area -- three times as many murders today as in 1960, three times as many violent crimes per police officer as there were 30 years ago, and three times as many births outside marriage -- where there has never been a marriage -- also related to the ultimate crime problem. I realize that a lot of these things are going to require the American people to get together and get something done.... [W]e're going to do our best, starting with the crime bill. We want you to help us. Thank you and God bless you."

There is no question that the U.S. is one of the most violent societies on earth, a heritage that goes back to the first European settlers who regarded the indigenous population as so much underbrush to be cleared. Our murder rates, for example, are anywhere from two to ten times those prevailing in Western Europe and Japan. But is the crime rate soaring, as Clinton and TV newsblasters say?

No. Take murder, which is not only the gravest crime, but the one for which the best statistics exist. Other crimes, like rape and robbery, are frequently not reported to police -- but the cops have a very good idea of the number of murders that occur. The number of murders per 100,000 population has doubled since 1960 -- the president conveniently forgot the population increase, no doubt to keep his nice threefold structure intact, and to exaggerate the problem -- but almost all that doubling happened in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1992, 9.3 people were murdered per 100,000 persons, a bit above early-1980s levels, but little changed from 1970s levels. Of course the rate is 9.3 too high, but the trend doesn't comport with the public hysteria.

Numbers covering crimes other than murder are far spongier. Police statistics, which show a near-doubling in the violent crime rate (i.e., rate per 100,000 persons, rather than raw numbers) may just be reflecting a greater propensity to call the cops. Also, not all police departments fill out the forms they file with the FBI with equal degrees of competence or care. A better method of studying crime trends is the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which it has carried out annually since 1973. The NCVS is a poll that asks respondents whether they've been victims of a crime during the survey period. While people do lie to pollsters, there's no reason to believe they lie more or less now than they did 10 or 20 years ago. So, in the words of Tony Pate, research director of the Police Foundation, the NCVS "is a preferable indicator, seeking as it does to get at unreported crime and [since it is] applied in a standardized fashion over time."

NCVS figures for the violent crime rate are plotted nearby. The line is about as flat as can be -- a sharp contrast with the incarceration rate, which has zoomed northward. The U.S. jails a larger share of its citizens than any country in the world, even South Africa or China (see chart below [forthcoming]).

Along with the NCVS data, the Bureau of Justice Statistics helpfully supplies a table that compares the risk of criminal victimization with what it calls "other life experiences" -- experiences of a decidedly unpleasant kind. The table reveals that people are half again as likely to be injured at work as they are to be victims of any violent crime, twice as likely to be hurt in a car accident as to be injured by a criminal, and four times as likely to die in a crash as at a murderer's hand. But you don't see many yahoos carrying on about our morbid reliance on automobiles or the intolerable risks of workplace maiming.

Who's victimized?

Lefties have been understandably reluctant to talk about crime because fearmongering is the favored tool of bigots and social disciplinarians. But, as with the discomfort with talking about welfare, that has ceded important rhetorical ground to the right. Besides pointing out that the boom in lawlessness is statistically overblown, it's essential to point out too that crime, like health, wealth, and wisdom, is not distributed very equally. In particular, the popular image of cowering whites besieged by black criminals is completely at odds with the facts.

Not surprisingly, the poor and nonwhite are far more likely to report to pollsters that they fear walking in their own neighborhood than the affluent and white -- with good reason. According to the NCVS figures for 1991, black women are 39% more likely than white women to be victims of a violent crime other than murder, and black men 62% more likely than white men. Households with incomes under $7,500 were three times as likely to be violently victimized. The risks are roughly equal for crimes against property -- purse-snatching or breaking and entering -- but considering that the rich and white have, in general, more things to steal than the poor and black, this is a perverse kind of egalitarianism.

When it comes to murder, the contrasts are even sharper. Half of all murder victims are black, even though only 12% of the population is -- meaning that blacks are four times more likely to be killed as nonblacks. Cliches to the contrary, interracial murder is extremely rare: 91% of white victims are iced by whites, and 87% of blacks by blacks. (About three-quarters of all murderers and murderees are male, parenthetically.) The white homicide rate of 4.6 per 100,000 is roughly on a par with France and Italy though it's still three times the Japanese rate -- but the black rate, 32.1 per 100,000, is like nothing else seen in the northern hemisphere.

It's all too easy to take those numbers and launch into a moralizing tale of "black-on-black" crime, one that conveniently represses any consideration of white-on-black racism. Clinton floated another convenient explanation -- an epidemic of bastardy. But over half of all Swedish births occur without the blessings of the state, yet their murder rate is less than a fifth the American rate; nearly the same share of births occur out-of-wedlock in Canada as the U.S., and their murder rate is less than a third ours.

But facts aren't what politicians, columnists, and assorted agitators are interested in. They're interested in getting votes, selling newspapers, stirring up racial hatred, encouraging citizens to surrender their civil liberties, and diverting public attention from mass misery and social decay. At that, they've been very successful.

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