Violent Crime and Race
March 17, 2010 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find unbiased data, or even better, unbiased analysis of data, about violent crime, as it relates to both race and income level?

We're studying People v. Goetz in class (the infamous NYC subway shooter) and discussing how racial fear interplays with violent crime. My reading points out that white people are pretty scared of young black men. It gives all sides of the story, but the articles are policy based and don't seem to back up their arguments with a lot of empirical evidence.

I went looking, but everything I find on the internet seems to be polemic: either a clearly racist article, or else an impassioned attack on closely-held racist beliefs.

Does anyone know where I can find how violent crimes break down by race, and how they break down by economic conditions? (I have a nagging feeling that what are claimed to be racial divisions might actually be economic) Is there data on what perceptions American's hold on violent crime, as related to race? Is there any good literature on this that the Hive can recommend?
posted by HabeasCorpus to Law & Government (3 answers total)
The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) has data, some of which is divided by race (example). There data can also be divided by year, region/area, type of crime, and a lot more. You can download the data as a spreadsheet, for further manipulation.
posted by Houstonian at 2:11 PM on March 17, 2010

There are all kinds of academic resources on this question that point to notion that, indeed, there is a significant differences in the breakdown of violent crimes by race as opposed to socio-economic status. It's also been suggested that public opinion on crime and criminality has definite racial divisions, although in some cases the methodology is pretty suspect, especially when discussing the effect of racial prejudice on perceptions of the prevalence of crime or support for punitiveness. I'd agree with the UCR recommendation, and would also recommend that you check out victimization data as an additional source.

Of course, UCR and NCVS (National Crime Victimization Survey) data have flaws. First, if you're a more suspicious person, the fact that police are arresting and reporting that offenders are of a particular race may or may not correlate with actual racial involvement in crime. It's all about crime that police notice. Second, if you think that people make a default assumption that criminals are of a certain racial group, then victimization data is only so informative (people may just assume that the person who victimized them was black, for instance.

The link between fear of crime and punitiveness or other notions about responses to violent crime is not clear cut, and there isn't really a definition of "fear" in regards to crime that scholars agree on. "Fear" might refer to how much a person worries about crime, what they think their risk of victimization is, or how much they're afraid of being victimized by particular people or groups of individuals.

Annual surveys of public opinion often have one or two questions about crime--even if it's very general. The General Social Survey is often cited as a source for views about crime in society, so it may have some information that's worth looking into for your question about public opinion. If you're interested in this from the perspective of what the research in this area says, then I'd go with:

Bobo & Johnson (2004)
Chiricos, Welch, & Gertz (2004)
Cochran & Chamlin (2006)
Edsall & Edsall (1991)
Kennedy (1997)
Tonry (1994)

--Those are all Googlable, but I get academic journals through the university library so I'm not sure how many are open source. Even if you read the abstracts, though, you should be able to get a general idea of what the findings were.

Also, get into the drug literature, particularly as it relates to crack cocaine. Huge part of the race & crime debate, and often pulls in ideas about violent crime. Read about the Willie Horton case.

The best way (in my opinion) to get into the relationship between socio-economic status and crime is to look at some of the literature on crime and place--I'm admittedly biased because I'm very interested in this research area. Crime and place research looks at the characteristics of small areas, like street segments or city blocks, and how they may be correlated with rates of crime. Racial heterogeneity and low socio-economic status in an area (measured by Section 8 housing and housing values) are both pretty good predictors of where crimes occur. I think this link has some of this type of analysis from an analysis of crime data in the city of Seattle.

What is interesting about the Seattle data is that it shows that while many places with low SES and high racial heterogeneity have high rates of crime, not all places with those characteristics have high crime rates, and many places with those characteristics have no crime at all. Equally, some places that are racially homogenous (in Seattle: white) or with high SES experience a lot of crime. So the relationship here is pretty complicated, and no one variable, either race or SES, explains who is involved in crime or where crime takes place.

Finally, return to public opinion. One of the weaknesses in the literature is that it rarely makes regional distinctions in opinions about violent crime and race issues. Of the studies that do consider this, the most obvious (and widely examined) assumption is that white southerners think that black people are responsible for violent crime. There are so many problems with this assumption that it's hard to know where to start, but to begin with: there are distinctions in opinions about crime between individuals who live in urban, suburban, or rural areas, who live in racially homogeneous vs. heterogeneous areas, who are more or less educated, and so on. Regions in this country also have significant variation in the number of people with these characteristics. Different racial groups have significant variation in these characteristics. People with different SES differ in these characteristics. So there's no simple answer to this question, and people who live in different parts of the country experience crime--and violent crime, race, and other issues--in different ways.
posted by _cave at 3:25 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

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