Out In The Streets They Call It Murder

Jill Lepore has an interesting quasi-survey of the latest literature on murder in America, that's worth reading. I appreciate this for reasons I hinted at yesterday--I deeply suspect that one way we obscure--and escape--American problems, is by making them black problems. This was my old beef with the Prop 8 coverage, with the "Down-Low" myth, and with "black on black" crime. The fact is that Americans--not simply black people--have always been partcularly murderous:

In Europe, homicide rates, conventionally represented as the number of murder victims per hundred thousand people in the population per year, have been falling for centuries. Spierenburg attributes this long decline to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the "civilizing process" (shorthand for a whole class of behaviors requiring physical restraint and self-control, right down to using a fork instead of eating with your hands or stabbing at your food with a knife), and to the growing power of the centralizing state to disarm civilians, control violence, enforce law and order, and, broadly, to hold a monopoly on the use of force. (Anthropologists sometimes talk about a related process, the replacement of a culture of honor with a culture of dignity.) In feuding medieval Europe, the murder rate hovered around thirty-five. Duels replaced feuds. Duels are more mannered; they also have a lower body count. By 1500, the murder rate in Western Europe had fallen to about twenty. Courts had replaced duels. By 1700, the murder rate had dropped to five. Today, that rate is generally well below two, where it has held steady, with minor fluctuations, for the past century.

In the United States, the picture could hardly be more different. The American homicide rate has been higher than Europe's from the start, and higher at just about every stage since. It has also fluctuated, sometimes wildly. During the Colonial period, the homicide rate fell, but in the nineteenth century, while Europe's kept sinking, the U.S. rate went up and up. In the twentieth century, the rate in the United States dropped to about five during the years following the Second World War, but then rose, reaching about eleven in 1991. It has since fallen once again, to just above five, a rate that is, nevertheless, twice that of any other affluent democracy.

Lepore doesn't seem fully convinced by any of the theories she explores, but the frame she offers is helpful on several levels. I date back to Lou Dobbs thundering for the black community to deal with the violence in its communities.

I don't want to hear your excuses, I don't want to hear your lame nonsense about how much money you need to save the next life. you have it in your power, the black churches, the black school leaders, the black community leaders, the black community organizers, the black parents of that community. Fix the problem. Quit whining, quit looking to someone else for the solution, and by God, let's move ahead.

You know me, religion calls me to some aspects of that. But the fact is that this sort of evasion is premised on the notion that blacks are not actually Americans, and that our problems are somehow a unique plague disconnected to a broader American plague.

Over the next year, my hope is that much of my long-form journalism will be devoted to the precise nature of America's "Black Problem." Put differently--To what extent are black people suffering from ills unique to our own history, culture and experience, and to what extent are we suffering from the long grind faced by any ethnic group making its way up? I suspect some mix of the two--slavery and Jim Crow are quite unique, and yet I think there's something to be garnered from studying the history of others. Is the problem of the black urban underclass, for instance, a "black" problem at all? Or is this a larger problem of American--and indeed human--cities? And what constitutes "solving" the black problem? What does equality look like? Are all strata of white people equal? Why do we not believe we have, say, an "Appalachia problem"? What is the exact, precise measure of equality?

These are questions which I'll be exploring. I have some notions, but I don't have any firm answers.