According to one well-respected scholar, "high rates of black crime" continue to exist despite declining crime rates nationally because African Americans live in highly segregated and deeply impoverished neighborhoods. Not only does his work suggest that both segregation and poverty breed violence but, more disturbingly, that the ways in which poor blacks decide collectively and individually to protect themselves seems only to "fuel the violence," and gives it "a self-perpetuating character."
Segregation and poverty are indeed serious problems today, and too many of America’s poorest all-black and all-brown communities also suffer a level of violence that, if one disregards the horrific killing sprees in places like Columbine, Seattle, or Sandy Hook, is largely unknown in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. Whereas the violent crime rate in the mostly black city of Detroit was 21.23 per 1,000 (15,011 violent crimes) in 2012, that same year the virtually all-white city of Grosse Point, Michigan nearby reported a rate of only 1.12 per 1,000 (6 violent crimes).
Notwithstanding such seemingly damning statistics, though, we have all seriously misunderstood the origins of the almost-paralyzing violence that our most racially-segregated communities now experience and, as troublingly, we have seriously mischaracterized the nature of so much of the violence that the residents of these communities suffer.
To start, locating today’s concentrated levels of gun violence in hyper-segregation and highly concentrated poverty is quite ahistorical. As any careful look at the past makes clear, neither of these social ills is new and, therefore, neither can adequately explain why it is only recently that so many children of color are being shot or killed in their own communities.
Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, racially-segregated communities have been the norm. Everything from restrictive covenants to discriminatory federal housing policies ensured that throughout the postwar period, neighborhoods in cities such as Detroit or Chicago would be either all white or all non-white and, until now, none of these segregated spaces experienced sustained rates of violence so completely out of step with national trends.
To suggest, as both scholars and the media have, that the violence experienced by all-black or all-brown neighborhoods today stems in large part from their residential isolation is problematic for other reasons as well. It leads some to suspect that if people of color simply spent more time with white people, lived next to them, and went to school with them, they would be less violent—they would perhaps learn better ways to resolve disputes and deal with stress and anger. Again, though, history belies this logic.
White Americans also have a long history of violence—not only when asked to share residential space with African Americans or even to treat them as equals in schools or on the job, but also when nary a person of color is near. From the lynching of blacks in the Jim Crow era to the crimes committed against African Americans every time they tried to move onto a white block after World War I and World War II, ugly incidents of white violence were both regular and unremarkable. Even among those who look just like them, whites historically have engaged in a variety of violent behaviors that would make many shudder—from their propensity to engage in brutal duels and to “eye gouge” their fellow whites in the decades before the Civil War, to their involvement in mass shootings in more recent years.