It seems that every tragedy with the scale or luridness to attract widespread media coverage also brings calls for a “national conversation” that are doubly misguided. First, what makes the news is often unusual, a fluke, not the big-picture story that emerges from dry statistics. Second, the conversations called for seem suspiciously like monologues, with topics already suggesting the “obvious” solution. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case, we thus have calls for national conversations on race and guns — the who (perp or victim, depending on your focus) and how of crime.
The underlying assumptions are that systematic racism endures and that guns cause crime. Being myself triracial (white, black, and Chickasaw Freedman), I am sensitive to racial issues but aware that things are not always as simple as black and white. I suggest a national conversation about homicide. Homicide is unambiguous: it is easily counted and, unlike other deaths (e.g. accident or suicide), there exists a killer with intent. While U.S. accident and suicide rates are comparable with those of our peer nations, the United States has a much higher homicide rate. However, this is a large, complex country, so any understanding requires drilling into the data, at least a bit.
If there is one resource that all Americans should have handy during this national conversation, it is the Expanded Homicide Data of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. The national conversation should address all of homicide’s dimensions, not just the who and how, but also the where, why and when. Useful homicide statistics might include the following:
1) When the race of those involved is known, half of the killers are black, as are half of the victims.
2) Of the circumstances, when they are known, at least 10 percent of murders concern gangs and/or illegal drugs, and probably quite a lot more, e.g. heroin addicts committing robbery to finance their expensive habit.
In summary, U.S. murderers and their victims are both likely to be young, black, urban males involved with gangs. Even if drug gangs are not directly involved in all murders, it is narcotics trafficking that is requiring and financing their guns, a primary tool of the trade. Dim awareness of these statistics informs people’s stereotypes, and quite likely influenced Zimmerman’s.
Human beings are rational, but notoriously poor at assessing statistics and the likelihood of threats. Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan recently wrote that “a black male was 40 times as likely to assault a white person as the reverse.” Well, yes, and a left-handed tennis player is more likely to play a right-handed player as the reverse, even more so if lefties and righties tended to live in separate communities. Still, he has a point.
The 2010 U.S. murder rate (per 100,000) was 4.8, compared with 1.1 in France and 1.2 in the UK. This substantial difference demands explanation, but we should bear in mind also the trend: murder rates are dropping all over the world (as just reported in the July 20th edition of The Economist), and the U.S. murder rate has fallen by roughly half in the last 30 years. The U.S. murder rate over the past century has two notable peaks: in 1933 and in 1980, with well-known causes: alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition.
Alcohol Prohibition led to widespread criminalization, disrespect for the law, mayhem and gang warfare, exemplified by the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, when Al Capone’s South Side Italian gang shot seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Irish gang. Alcohol was smuggled in from a neighboring country, Canada. The nation quickly re-evaluated its priorities, repealed Prohibition, and restricted automatic weapons (notably the Tommy gun).
Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933, and in 1934 the murder rate fell by half.
Drug prohibition has produced similar consequences, with other ethnic groups forming the gangs, and smuggling from Mexico instead of Canada, but where is the national conversation? Blacks are afraid to call attention to the disproportionately black perps, and suburban whites fail to identify with the darker-skinned victims. Both ignore the staggering statistics, e.g. that the “Land of the Free” has the world’s highest incarceration rate. This is literally destroying the black community.Suggesting a national debate on homicide is not meant to preclude other uncomfortable race-related topics. Drug prohibition shackles primarily black American men; the children are shackled by poor schools, and the women by welfare. National conversations should address the failure of all these government programs.
Stephen Cobb is an electrical engineer in Nashua.