Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Cultural Roots of Crime

Long-time readers of this blog are probably aware of articles and books I've referenced in the past concerning crime and violence, as well as the disproportionate amount of violent crime committed by certain minorities. Thus, it was with interest I read a recent article/interview by David Frum at The Atlantic, entitled, "The Cultural Roots of Crime: A conversation about the rise and fall of violence in America with criminal-justice scholar Barry Latzer." 

Latzer, a criminal defense attorney and researcher, takes the controversial position in his book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, that crime is related to culture (not race--he specifically notes the dramatically lower crime rates of Haitian refugees in Miami in the early 1980's compared to the black Americans in Miami), and that spikes in crime rates are tied to immigration and migration within the nation-state of populations with more crime-prone cultures. He uses this to explain the crime spikes of 1890-1935 and plunge during 1935-1965, as well as the more recent spike and plunge. Latzer explains that in the 1890's, Northern cities were actually seeing low crime rates, while the South experienced rising violent crime by blacks. He goes on:
Northern cities started to suffer more violent crime in the first decade of the 20th century, partly because of the southern Italian migration to the U.S. ... Then, following World War I, a Mexican migration to the U.S. added to the crime totals, as did a major spike in black migration out of the South. The war sparked a black movement to big cities for economic betterment, but, unfortunately, also brought with it high crime rates within the black community. In addition, Prohibition, which began in 1920, produced violence among the alcohol distribution gangs competing for turf (though this violence did not target ordinary citizens). 
Violent crime peaked in the early 1930s, with a wave of bank robberies by “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde Barrow. ... 
Crime rates started to decline in the mid-1930s, at the same time that the New Deal went into effect. This may seem like cause-and-effect: unemployment and poverty were reduced, so violent crime diminished. But this is not necessarily correct. First, Prohibition ended in 1933, and that helped reduce murder rates. Second, the spate of bank robberies and kidnappings declined, partly because law enforcement apprehended high-profile perpetrators. Third, migration by blacks and Mexicans and immigration by Italians declined dramatically when jobs became unavailable due to the Depression. Finally, there was a severe downturn in the economy in 1937 and 1938, yet violent crime continued to fall. The American public was terribly damaged by the Great Depression—68 percent of Americans were below the poverty line in 1939—but this produced no increase in violent crime.

During World War II, crime continued to drop, partly because the war removed hundreds of thousands of young men from the streets to the barracks. When the war ended there was a brief spike in violent crime, but the downturn continued after the war and well into the postwar boom of the 1950s. No one is sure why crime remained low in the 1950s, but several factors helped. Crime rates for African Americans, though higher than average, were historically low for that community. Drug and alcohol use also were down. The Depression had produced a birth dearth, so the young male population was reduced. And the supercharged economy created a massive and growing middle class in a short period of time; and middle-class people seldom commit crimes of violence. All in all, the 1950s was a golden age of low crime.  
He also outlines his arguments as to why culture is the predominate factor for crime rates and why poverty is over emphasized:
Different groups of people, insofar as they consider themselves separate from others, share various cultural characteristics: dietary, religious, linguistic, artistic, etc. They also share common beliefs and values. There is nothing terribly controversial about this. If it is mistaken then the entire fields of sociology and anthropology are built on mistaken premises. 

With respect to violent crime, scholars are most interested in a group's preference for violence as a way of resolving interpersonal conflict. Some groups, traditionally rural, developed cultures of “honor”—strong sensitivities to personal insult. We see this among white and black southerners in the 19th century, and among southern Italian and Mexican immigrants to the U.S. in the early 20th century. These groups engaged in high levels of assaultive crimes in response to perceived slights, mainly victimizing their own kind. This honor culture explains the high rates of violent crime among African Americans who, living amidst southern whites for over a century, incorporated those values. When blacks migrated north in the 20th century, they transported these rates of violence. Elijah Anderson's book, The Code of the Streets, describes the phenomenon, and Thomas Sowell, in Black Liberals and White Rednecks, helps explain it.

In the case of blacks, the big change in terms of violence was the high robbery rates and the concomitantly high white victimization rates of the post-60s era (robbery being a crime against strangers). These were products of the massive postwar spike in black migration to northern cities (800,000 in the 1960s; 1.8 million in the ‘70s); the black baby boom coming of age for violence (late adolescence, early manhood); a youth crime contagion, in which crime became cool and young males copied one another and began mugging with impunity; and the opportunities for victimization presented by whites who moved about northern cities with lots of cash and valuables. 
Theories of crime that point to poverty and racism have the advantage of explaining why low-income groups predominate when it comes to violent crime. What they really explain, though, is why more affluent groups refrain from such crime. And the answer is that middle-class people (regardless of race) stand to lose a great deal from such behavior. Wisely, more affluent people go to law and seek other nonviolent methods to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Poor people, and especially young, male poor people, do not. Their perceived stake in the established order is tenuous. 
 I think the implications for immigration policies is readily apparent.

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