Eric Levitz writes in the Intelligence that, at our most peaceful, the United States is an exceptionally murderous nation.
In 2014, America recorded the lowest homicide rate in its
history — and the
highest homicide rate of any comparably prosperous country. That year,
Americans were more than three times as likely as Western Europeans to die by
murder. Like most things in the U.S., this aberrantly high risk of homicide was
not distributed equally. Residents of Washington, D.C., were murdered at eight
times the rate of those in Iowa. Within the District, as in virtually all major
U.S. cities, killing was largely quarantined to a select group of politically
disempowered, economically dispossessed neighborhoods. Poor Black people did
the bulk of the dying.
America’s distribution of violent death has changed little
over the past seven years. But the sum total has risen considerably. In 2019,
the U.S. murder rate was about 11 percent higher than it had been in 2014. We
do not yet have an official body count for 2020. But preliminary data suggests
that, across major cities, homicides rose by an average
of 30 percent last year — and then jumped another 24 percent through
the first few months of this one. If current estimates prove accurate, 2020
witnessed the largest single-year increase in homicides in U.S. history, and
2021 is on pace to see a jump an even higher jump.
This poses a challenge for progressives. Over the past
decade, the American left has come to define itself in opposition to our
nation’s criminal-justice system — to the aberrant length
of its prison sentences, the inhumanity
of its penitentiaries, and the racism
of its policing. Amid the nadir in violent crime (and high
tide of post-2008 budget austerity), reform gained traction. Drugs
were decriminalized, prison
populations cut, progressive
prosecutors elected, mandatory-minimum
sentencing rolled back, and police killings in major cities marginally
reduced. But in America, safety and compassion historically have been
deemed competing goods. In times of relative peace, we may acknowledge the
humanity of criminal offenders and the presumed innocence of suspect classes.
Once the enfranchised’s sense of security is shaken, however, such niceties
have often been suspended.
Thus, the present homicide surge threatens to erode the
left’s fragile progress toward a justice system worthy of that name. Already,
the Democratic Party is seeking
greater distance from radical police reform. And since frightened
electorates are often reactionary ones, the rising salience of crime imperils
the entire progressive project.
All this has led some on the left to downplay the past
year’s murder wave, and attempt to stigmatize media coverage of it. On Twitter,
influential liberal commentators routinely deride straightforward
reporting on the rise in homicides or commentary on
the subject (even when that commentary is ultimately sympathetic to
the reform project). Others suggest that the media is engineering
public concern about crime where little would otherwise exist, if not
nonexistent crime wave.” One prominent civil-rights attorney preemptively
belittled an expected
increase in homicides this summer by arguing that “what
constitutes a ‘crime’ is determined by people in power who have a lot of money,”
among other things.
In isolation, almost all of these media criticisms are
defensible. One can muster reasonable critiques of the framing of most articles
about gun violence. America is not experiencing a “crime wave” (i.e., an
across-the-board increase in all categories of crime) so much as a homicide
surge in certain pockets of certain cities. A wide range of socially
devastating activities are not coded as criminal because powerful interests
benefit from them. And yet, as these plausible-if-overheated denunciations of
homicide coverage proliferate on progressive social media, they send one
fundamental, meta-message: The left is complacent about a large increase
in the already exceptionally high rate of homicide victimization
endured by the urban working class.
I think it’s both politically and morally imperative for progressives
to disavow such complacency. The threat that public alarm over crime will
trigger a punitive turn in policy is real. But the best way for the left to
counter that threat is not to downplay concerns about rising murder rates, but
rather to insist that such violence only underscores the necessity of
progressive reform. That is not an easy argument to make in the U.S., but at
the municipal level at least, we know that it can be a
The dismissive posture that many progressives adopt toward coverage of violent crime is motivated by inarguable insights: Americans routinely overestimate the prevalence of crime, a fact that is largely attributable to the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” modus operandi. Despite the homicide surge of the past two years, America’s murder rate remains far lower than it was in the 1990s, and mainstream coverage does not always convey this fact. Even last year, the number of Americans killed by homicide (roughly 20,000) paled in comparison to those killed by more mundane, perennially under-covered social ills such as the tobacco industry (est. 480,000), air pollution (est. 100,000), or lack of health insurance (est. 45,000).
Given these realities — and the political hazards of crime’s
rising prominence — there might be a case for trying to bully news outlets into
giving short shrift to a murder wave, were that a plausible objective. But it
isn’t. No amount of Twitter dunks will persuade the mainstream media to abandon
its preoccupation with violence, because none will extinguish our own
fascination with the same. “Man Who Lived in Vicinity of Coal-Fired Power Plant
Dies Prematurely From Respiratory Problems” will never command as much
attention as “Toddler Killed by Stray Bullet.”
If the left’s attempt to stigmatize media coverage of rising
crime is tactically quixotic, it is also often intellectually hypocritical.
Yes, America’s murder rate is lower today than it was in the
early 1990s. But so is the percentage of Americans who lack health insurance.
In 2018, progressives did not lambast the media for covering
a modest increase in the uninsured rate because things were still
better than they’d been in 1998. Rather, we pointed to the negligible uninsured
rates of other developed countries, and declared the performance of America’s
health-care system a persistent scandal. If our nation’s uninsured rate should
be judged by the standard of other wealthy countries, why shouldn’t its murder
rate be judged by the same metric? To put the same basic point
shootings in American cities were less prevalent in 2020 than they had
been years earlier. Does any progressive believe that fact had any bearing on
whether George Floyd’s murder deserved widespread media coverage?
Leftists have made many sound
criticisms of news coverage of mass shootings. Yet I am not aware of
any who argued in 2012 that the national media shouldn’t treat the Sandy Hook
massacre as an event worthy of national attention or political response, on the
grounds that America’s homicide rate was near a historic low. In the grand
scheme of public-health threats, high-casualty mass shootings are
marginal phenomena. But progressives by and large do not disdain coverage
of them on that basis. To the contrary, in the context of such shootings,
progressives typically recognize that homicide degrades our collective life in
a manner that other, more prevalent causes of death don’t; in periods when mass
killings come in quick succession, we often tweet lamentations of our newfound
sense of physical insecurity in public space, and condemnations of the
complacent policy-makers who’ve undermined our safety. (I know I am not the only
person who, at various public gatherings, has experienced intrusive thoughts of
where I’d hide/what escape route I’d take, should bullets start to fly.)
Yet there is no progressive argument for why (relatively)
rare episodes of mass violence in places frequented by the white middle class
deserve media attention and political concern — but a 30 percent increase in
homicide concentrated in low-income Black communities does not. And of course,
the trauma suffered by middle-class news junkies who opt into witnessing mass
shootings on social media is trivial compared to the
trauma suffered by poor children whose every walk to school is
shadowed by the threat of lethal violence.
It is surely true that crime’s rising salience in opinion
polls is driven primarily by “media-shaped
perceptions” rather than firsthand experience, since criminal victimization
is concentrated among a disadvantaged minority. But a recent Yahoo
News/YouGov survey found that concern with crime was significantly
higher among the demographic groups that suffer the highest rates of firsthand
victimization. Asked whether they considered crime a “very big problem” in
America today, 59 percent of Black voters said yes, while just 47 percent of
white voters said the same. Similarly, while only 41 percent of voters earning
over $100,000 a year called crime a “very big” problem, that figure was 50
percent among those earning less than $50,000.
The urban working class’s acute concern with crime is
further illuminated by a Gallup poll taken last summer, in the immediate
aftermath of the George Floyd protests. In it, only 19
percent of Black respondents said that they wanted a reduced police
presence in their neighborhood — this despite the fact that, in a
nearly simultaneous survey, more than 80 percent of Black voters said that
they lacked confidence in the police.
The American left is not going to remake public safety in
U.S. cities without expanding
its support among the urban working class. And publicly associating
progressivism with complacency about a rise in homicides seems antithetical to
that project in at least two ways. For one, it risks conveying the impression
that the left lacks confidence in its own vision for public safety — generally
speaking, political movements do not seek to downplay social problems that they
think their program will solve.
For another, it invites the suspicion that the (largely
white, middle-class) progressive movement’s interest in preserving the lives of
disadvantaged Black people is highly contingent: Lose your son in a way we find
ideologically flattering and narratively satisfying — at the hands of a cop, or
some other archetypical embodiment of white supremacy — and you will know our
solidarity. Lose him to another disadvantaged kid in a tit-for-tat gang feud,
and we’ll criticize the media for treating an uptick in deaths like his as a
I do not think that such impressions would be accurate. As
I’ve already suggested, I think the left’s (far from universal) impulse to
downplay rising homicide is rooted in a well-founded fear that an increase in
crime’s salience will yield a punitive turn in public policy, which would only
exacerbate the hardships of the urban poor. But on social media, the gap
between the left’s avowed interest in the victims of police violence and its
interest in the far more numerous victims of street violence is
vast. Reasonable, ideologically unsettled observers could get the wrong
idea, and thus grow more sympathetic to the right’s ideas.
Progressives aren’t going to get the media to ignore crime
for the sake of social justice. And we aren’t going to persuade the urban
working class to disregard rising homicide. Thus, our best bet for resisting a
punitive turn in criminal-justice policy is to convince voters that our
approach to public safety is more
effective than the pro-carceral status quo.
Happily, the evidence that a progressive anti-crime agenda
would outperform America’s traditional draconian one is quite strong. Contrary
to the wishful speculations of some pundits, the past year’s spike in homicide
is not attributable to the rise of progressive prosecutors: Murder rates have
risen no faster in cities with reformist district attorneys.
Meanwhile, criminological research suggests that:
• Community-based “violence interrupter”
programs can preempt lethal violence.
• If the Medicaid
expansion is any guide, then increasing access to affordable health
care in general — and free drug treatment in particular — can deliver immediate reductions
in both violent and property crimes.
• Laws tightening licensing requirements for handgun
purchases have yielded
dramatic reductions in firearm homicide rates.
There are obviously distinctions between center-left, progressive,
and abolitionist public-safety agendas. Most notably, there is a genuine
tension between minimizing homicide victimization and literally, immediately,
defunding the police. The empirical
literature demonstrating that high police staffing levels reduce crime
is robust. American cops are
bad at solving murders, but they’re pretty good at sitting in parked cars.
And all else equal, people are less likely to commit a violent crime in a
moment of passion if a police car is in their immediate vicinity. Even
criminologists who support reductions in policing, like Fordham’s John Pfaff,
do not deny this finding. If leftists wish to persuade the unconverted that
they take public safety seriously, I don’t think they should deny it either.
But just because police deter crime, it does not necessarily
follow that it wouldn’t be cost effective, from a public safety perspective, to
reallocate police funding to other public goods. Cost-benefit analyses of
police funding uniformly neglect to account for both the social costs of
policing and the opportunity costs of investing in cops instead of other social
Investing in policing may reduce rates of victimization. But
it does so at a price not captured in any fiscal budget: the needless deaths
caused by trigger-happy officers; young Black men’s routine experience of
harassment, discrimination, and/or nonlethal forms of police violence, and the
physical and emotional toll of those experiences. If police primarily deter
crime through their mere presence (and the threat of legal
consequences it projects), then it is plausible that a different category of
public servant could serve much the same function, at a lower social cost. As a
team of scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice noted last year,
many so-called Business
Improvement Districts already successfully rely on unarmed security
guards to deter criminal activity.
As for the opportunity cost: One recent
study from researchers at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania
suggested that American cities are under-policed, as every additional dollar
spent on policing yields $1.63 in savings from crime reduction. Yet a separate
study published the same year found that each new dollar invested in
drug-treatment programs may produce nearly $4 worth of crime preemption.
Wherever a progressive (or abolitionist) falls on the
“defund” question, though, the moral and political imperative to evince concern
for rising homicide remains the same. Those who suffer most from the dual
oppressions of abusive policing and concentrated violence deserve both justice
and safety. To deliver for that constituency, the left must convince a broader
public that those aren’t competing goods. When we belittle criminal violence,
we sound unconvinced.
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