Race, Homicide, and Geography: The Unexplored Territory

This article is intended as a follow up to last month’s piece “A Spark in the Tinderbox,” which discussed the narratives and factual realities regarding race and policing in America. While the discussion of racial disparities in policing has taken on added importance based on recent events, it is inexorably linked to the discussion of crime itself, which is addressed here.

The author of this piece detests the term “black crime.” You fairly routinely see this term – particularly in hard right wing media – and it conjures up stereotypical images of a predator committed to wreaking havoc on polite society. This piece will argue something quite different – crime is crime and is not per se linked to race; and the crime problem that plagues certain, largely inner-city black communities is a phenomenon linked to localized but widely replicated conditions that are in fact disassociated with race itself. Because this piece looks at crime as a whole through the lens of homicide (the most severe form of criminal behavior), there are some limitations to its reach as to lesser criminal acts.

Turning back to homicide, based on statistics from the Bureau of Justice statistics, approximately 52% of the total homicides in the US between 1980 and 2008 were committed by African Americans, despite this cohort constituting only 12-15% of the population.  This staggering disproportion is so profound that a non-politically correct skeptic may take issue with the characterization of the term “black crime” as unfair and obfuscating about the realities of the discourse.  But said skeptic has not scratched beneath the surface of homicide patterns in the African American community, which are geographically disproportionate to a shocking degree.

While the literature of race, homicide, and geography leaves many stones unturned, a review of studies on the topic of just race and homicide occasionally reveals cursory mentions of the documented lack of difference between black and white homicide rates in rural areas.  More specifically, in rural areas of the United States, the homicide rates of white Americans and black Americans are effectively the same; there is no meaningful difference whatsoever.  For many readers, this is likely a shocking statistic, one that should be revolutionary as to how to view crime and race in the country.

After a great deal of research, the source of this (incredibly important) statistic was finally unearthed – a 1999 National Center for Health Statistics study written by Catherine Cubbin (a Stanford researcher), Linda Pickle, and Lois Fingerhut, which can be found here.


In their study, the authors included a graph on page four breaking down homicide rates by four geographical groupings – large and small metropolitan areas and large and small nonmetropolitan areas.  Not surprisingly, the homicide rate regardless of race was highest in large metropolitan areas and declined across the geographical categories as population numbers dwindled.  More importantly, however, the differential rates of homicide by race were substantially linked to geography.  While large and small metropolitan areas saw a roughly 5x greater homicide rate among black Americans than whites, that disparity was reduced to 3x in large nonmetropolitan areas, and it was completely and totally eliminated in small nonmetropolitan (rural) areas, where there existed no statistical correlation between race and homicide.  Although this survey was conducted twenty years ago, there seems little reason to believe that similar geographical disparities would not exist in the present.

So if a granular review of American homicides incorporating geography breaks the link between race and homicide, what explains the still profound difference between homicide rates in urban areas?  While this blog rarely relies on anecdotal evidence, a personal example is in order.  This author came of age in Rock Island, Illinois, a mixed race industrial community of about 40-45K on the Mississippi River (the greater region is known as the Quad Cities).  During the early 1990s, the homicide rate in Rock Island – particularly in the black community – was substantial.  In bloody 1993 and 1994, there were 16 murders in Rock Island alone (at least seven of which in 1993 alone were gang related).


At the time, it was indisputable that Rock Island had both a gang and a crime problem, largely arising from drug trafficking and related violent crime linked to Chicago-based street gangs.  Today, things are much different, with the city seeing a much-reduced homicide rate and a staggering 77% drop in violent crime between 2004 and 2018.


Between the early 1990s and the present, neither the economics nor the demographics of Rock Island changed, but the local conditions did.  Once prominent and extremely violent street gangs declined in importance and reach, and the homicides for which they were responsible largely vanished.  Community tolerance of serious criminal behavior almost assuredly fell, and the largely black neighborhoods where serious crime was heavily concentrated accepted that “cleaning up the streets” was both warranted and necessary.  Rock Island was not alone in this phenomenon, large swaths of the country saw substantial reductions in homicides and other violent crimes.

Of course, not all communities shared the same success.  Both crime and homicide have remained significant in certain African American neighborhoods across urban America, in cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and so forth.  The same problems that bedeviled those neighborhoods thirty years ago persist today, and homicide rates have not plummeted.  One might suspect that the problematic conditions in these communities – drug problems, gang issues, and an all-too-common lack of concern for both human life and maintaining general order – continue in a manner largely unchanged over the last several generations.

This piece will not endeavor to tackle the entirety of how to resolve the interplay between problematic local conditions tending to be concentrated in inner-city African American communities (as the solution is so multi-faceted as to require multiple articles to even scratch the surface) and substantial rates of homicide.  However, change the conditions of these communities, change the attitudes and value in these communities – changes that must begin internally with the communities themselves, as has happened in many neighborhoods throughout the nation – drastically reduce the homicide rate.

In fact, the recent post-protest/civil unrest spikes of homicides in places like Chicago and long peaceful New York reflect a concerning reversal of the positive improvements from the past 25 years, and must be immediately addressed to avoid replicating the local conditions that fostered more killings in a prior era.