Race and Crime in America

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The noted science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once declared that “Reality is what continues to exist whether you believe in it or not.”  Such an observation should be kept in mind when we consider some of the touchier aspects of American society.

Recall the notorious case of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1968 report on the terrible deterioration in the condition of the black American family aroused such a firestorm of denunciation and outrage in liberal circles that the topic was rendered totally radioactive for the better part of a generation.  Eventually the continuing deterioration reached such massive proportions that the subject was taken up again by prominent liberals in the 1980s, who then declared Moynihan a prophetic voice, unjustly condemned.

This contentious history of racially-charged social analysis was certainly in the back of my mind when I began my quantitative research into Hispanic crime rates in late 2009.  One traditional difficulty in producing such estimates had been the problematical nature of the data.  Although the FBI Uniform Crime Reports readily show the annual totals of black and Asian criminal perpetrators, Hispanics are generally grouped together with whites and no separate figures are provided, thereby allowing all sorts of extreme speculation by those so inclined.

In order to distinguish reality from vivid imagination, a major section of my analysis focused on the data from America’s larger cities, exploring the correlations between their FBI-reported crime rates and their Census-reported ethnic proportions.  If urban crime rates had little relation to the relative size of the local Hispanic population, this would indicate that Hispanics did not have unusually high rates of criminality.  Furthermore, densely populated urban centers have almost always had far more crime than rural areas or suburbs, so restricting the analysis to cities would reduce the impact of that extraneous variable, which might otherwise artificially inflate the national crime statistics for a heavily urbanized population group such as Hispanics.

My expectations proved entirely correct, and the correlations between Hispanic percentages and local crime rates were usually quite close to the same figures for whites, strongly supporting my hypothesis that the two groups had fairly similar rates of urban criminality despite their huge differences in socio-economic status.  But that same simple calculation yielded a remarkably strong correlation between black numbers and crime, fully confirming the implications of the FBI racial data on perpetrators.

This presented me with an obvious quandary. The topic of my article was “Hispanic crime” and my research findings were original and potentially an important addition to the public policy debate.  Yet the black crime figures in my charts and graphs were so striking that I realized they might easily overshadow my other results, becoming the focus of an explosive debate that would inevitably deflect attention away from my central conclusion.  Therefore, I chose to excise the black results, perhaps improperly elevating political prudence over intellectual candor.

I further justified this decision by noting that black crime in America had been an important topic of public discussion for at least the last half-century.  I reasoned that my findings must surely have been quietly known for decades to most social scientists in the relevant fields, and hence would add little to existing knowledge.  However, since that time a few private discussions have led me to seriously question that assumption, as has the emotion-laden but vacuous media firestorm surrounding the George Zimmerman trial.  I have therefore now decided to publish an expanded and unexpurgated version of my analysis, which I believe may have important explanatory value as well as some interesting policy implications.

The Pattern of Urban Crime in America

My central methodology is simple.  I obtained the crime rates and ethnic percentages of America’s larger cities from official government data sources and calculated the population-weighted cross-correlations.  In order to minimize the impact of statistical outliers, I applied this same approach to hundreds of different datasets: each of the years 1985 through 2011; homicide rates, robbery rates, and violent crime overall; all large cities of 250,000 and above and also restricted only to major cities of at least 500,000.  I obtained these urban crime correlations with respect to the percentages of local whites, blacks, and Hispanics, but excluded Asians since their numbers were quite insignificant until recently (here and throughout this article, “white” shall refer to non-Hispanic whites).

I also attempted to estimate these same results for the overall immigrant population.  The overwhelming majority of immigrants since 1965 have been Hispanic or Asian while conversely the overwhelming majority of those two population groups have a relatively recent immigrant family background.  So the combined population of Hispanics and Asians constitutes a good proxy for the immigrant community, and allows us to determine the immigrant relationship to crime rates.

Presented graphically, these various urban crime correlations are as follows:








These charts demonstrate that over the last twenty-five years the weighted correlations for each of the crime categories against the percentages of whites, Hispanics, and “immigrants” (i.e. Hispanics-plus-Asians) have fluctuated in the general range of -0.20 to -0.60.  Interestingly enough, for most of the last decade the presence of Hispanics and immigrants has become noticeably less associated with crime than the presence of whites, although that latter category obviously exhibits large regional heterogeneity.  Meanwhile, in the case of blacks, the weighted crime correlations have steadily risen from 0.60 to around 0.80 or above, almost always now falling within between 0.75 and 0.85.

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