What causes violent crime? It’s an important question, and one that is at the heart of criminology. A large number of factors have been suggested as possible causes and found to correlate with criminal activity (check out this book for a general overview of past research). Among the most important environmental factors are poverty, childhood maltreatment (that is being bullied, neglected, or abused as a child), and low success in school. Some characteristics of individuals also tend to be associated with higher levels of criminality. In particular, if you are any of the following, then you are part of a group with a statistically higher than average tendency to commit crimes: mentally ill (for example, clinically depressed or schizophrenic), male, 20-30 years old, or black. Of course, the first thing I should mention is that correlations are not the same thing as causation. Hence, all or none of these things may actually cause people to commit crimes. It’s important to realize that the factors are so numerous and their relationships with each other so complex that what the causes of crime really are is incredibly controversial even among the world’s leading researchers.
It was with this understanding, that we really don’t know what causes crime, that I decided to take a closer look at a recent story about the United States neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime. NeighborhoodScout.com released its annual list of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. They used a combination of FBI crime data (for rape, homicide, aggravated assault, and armed robbery) and Census Bureau geographic divisions to rank neighborhoods. The story was picked up by various national news agencies (for example, Huffington Post and MSNBC) as well as a host of local news agencies (for example, News Channel 5 in Nashville, KHOU Houston, and Fox 5 Atlanta).
The stories themselves are usually written with a sense of the delicacy of the situation, the fact that there are multiple causes of violent crime. Indeed, the journalists make few attempts to pinpoint the cause of the crime. What is interesting about the journalists’ account is who they are apparently writing for. In the MSNBC story, the reader is told that this information is important “because your home is an investment — perhaps the biggest one your family will ever make. A crime surge, even a few miles away across town, could hurt the value of that nest egg you’ve so carefully tended to.” Indeed, NeighborhoodScout.com markets itself as a service for potential real estate buyers to check out the location of their prospective acquisitions before purchasing. Hence, readers and users of the website are not invited to consider potential solutions for the root causes of crime in these areas. They are not told of the victims of these crimes. Instead, violent crime is a seemingly random plague that brings down real estate value. It is a phenomenon to be avoided by the savvy real estate purchaser. We read about it in these stories only from a comfortable, privileged distance.
What is more concerning, however, is what I found in the comments sections of these stories. Although as I mentioned we do not truly know what causes crime, it would appear that upon reading these stories the best and brightest of the internet have confirmed their deepest suspicions and are ready to draw their conclusions about the causes of violent crime. Not surprisingly, the explanations have to do largely with race.
I closely analyzed the most popular and least popular comments (those receiving the highest proportion of favorable votes vs. those receiving the highest proportion of unfavorable votes) on the MSNBC story. I found that the most well-liked comments posited a causal relationship between race and violent crime with Blacks and Latinos seen as the agents of crime. The least well-liked comments posited a causal relationship between factors such as poverty, historical oppression, modern prejudices, and availability of guns.
Here’s a sample of the most well-liked comments:
Each of these comments pulls race to the forefront. Indeed as was a common theme, both the first and third comments object to the tone of the original article which characterized the NeighborhoodScout.com report as surprising, unexpected, or difficult to interpret. Together the comments present a worldview in which racial minorities are both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime. In addition, the White majority is presented as largely blameless. The second comment suggests that Whites innocently left urban areas to avoid the crime that they were not causing. What is also interesting is the frequent denial of racism among commenters, such as in the first comment. Commenters are clearly averse to being labelled “racist” despite presenting what are quite clearly racist ideologies.
A very different perspective is presented in the least popular comments. There the predominant worldview was that other factors unrelated to race were the driving forces behind crime in these neighborhoods such as in the examples below.
The three example comments from among the least popular are clearly responding to the predominance of racist comments on the article. They present a worldview in which racial minorities have had and continue to have less access to material wealth and societal power. These commenters then deny the natural connection between race and crime suggested by the commenters above.
Two things are of note about the comments on this article. First, although we don’t really know what causes crime, the ideology promoted by the first three comments (and most of the other most popular comments as well as others on other news articles about the report) is one that posits a simple explanation: skin that is not White causes crime. The other point is for me the more sobering one. It’s this: from what we see here, it’s clear that the idea that we have somehow transcended racism is far from accurate. Racism is not the beaten down ideology of the old days that only occasionally turns up in the words and actions of a small group of radicals, like when the Klu Klux Klan comes to town. There’s no way to know just what percentage of the population harbors ideas like the commenters above (extrapolating a number based purely on the votes on these comments is clearly a flawed methodology). However, racism is alive, and it’s not the work of a few isolated individuals.