The Cultural Roots of Crime

A conversation about the rise and fall of violence in America with criminal-justice scholar Barry Latzer.

Sue Ogrocki / AP

Barry Latzer is that rare academic with both practical and theoretical knowledge of his subject matter. He prosecuted and defended accused criminals while teaching at the City University of New York graduate center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His new book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, makes use of more than a century of crime statistics to sum up the wisdom of a long career studying why crime waves rise and fall. It’s a book that does not shy from the controversial, as you’ll see from our conversation.

David Frum: Your book ends with the ominous possibility that the great crime reduction since the early 1990s is not a permanent transition, but just a temporary trough in a recurring cycle of crime spikes and crime drop-offs. Could you briefly explain the basis of this worrying claim?

Barry Latzer: The optimistic view is that the late ‘60s crime tsunami, which ended in the mid-1990s, was sui generis, and we are now in a period of "permanent peace," with low crime for the foreseeable future. Pessimists rely on the late Eric Monkkonen's cyclical theory of crime, which suggests that the successive weakening and strengthening of social controls on violence lead to a crime roller coaster. The current zeitgeist favors a weakening of social controls, including reductions in incarcerative sentences and restrictions on police, on the grounds that the criminal-justice system is too racist, unfair, and expensive. If Monkkonen were correct, we will get a crime rise before long. Optimists point to the absence of factors that brought on the 60s crime boom: no immigration or migration of high-crime populations, no demographic upsurge in the youth population. They might also add: continued movement of minorities to the middle class, and no drug epidemics (like crack cocaine) among poor populations, which generate spikes in violent crime. (The current heroin/opioid crisis is unlikely to produce significant violent crime so long as the drugs are cheap and the users relatively affluent. Drug and alcohol prohibitions produce violence in two ways: where distribution gangs compete for territory and kill one another, and where poor populations are unable to support their addictions, leading to robbery and other crimes to raise money.)

Frum: Maybe we can get some perspective on today’s crime situation by more closely examining the previous peak, 1890-1935, and the previous plunge, 1935-1965. Why in your estimation did crime spike so high in that first period and drop so deep in the second?

Latzer: I wouldn't date the start of the first 20th century crime boom at 1890. The 1890s were a low-crime period in the big cities of the North. In the South, however, black violent crime rose and rural whites panicked, leading to the lynching and convict lease policies of that era. Northern cities started to suffer more violent crime in the first decade of the 20th century, partly because of the southern Italian migration to the U.S. The typical Italian immigrant crimes were murder, assault and threats of same by the so-called Black Hand, a proto-Mafia which mainly terrified the immigrants themselves. Then, following World War I, a Mexican migration to the U.S. added to the crime totals, as did a major spike in black migration out of the South. The war sparked a black movement to big cities for economic betterment, but, unfortunately, also brought with it high crime rates within the black community. In addition, Prohibition, which began in 1920, produced violence among the alcohol distribution gangs competing for turf (though this violence did not target ordinary citizens).

Violent crime peaked in the early 1930s, with a wave of bank robberies by “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde Barrow. This was accompanied by the sensational kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 and a spate of copycat kidnappings. J. Edgar Hoover made his name by directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hunt down and capture or kill these “Public Enemies,” as he labeled them, and by 1934 the FBI or local agents had successfully done so with each of them.

Crime rates started to decline in the mid-1930s, at the same time that the New Deal went into effect. This may seem like cause-and-effect: unemployment and poverty were reduced, so violent crime diminished. But this is not necessarily correct. First, Prohibition ended in 1933, and that helped reduce murder rates. Second, the spate of bank robberies and kidnappings declined, partly because law enforcement apprehended high-profile perpetrators. Third, migration by blacks and Mexicans and immigration by Italians declined dramatically when jobs became unavailable due to the Depression. Finally, there was a severe downturn in the economy in 1937 and 1938, yet violent crime continued to fall. The American public was terribly damaged by the Great Depression—68 percent of Americans were below the poverty line in 1939—but this produced no increase in violent crime.

During World War II, crime continued to drop, partly because the war removed hundreds of thousands of young men from the streets to the barracks. When the war ended there was a brief spike in violent crime, but the downturn continued after the war and well into the postwar boom of the 1950s. No one is sure why crime remained low in the 1950s, but several factors helped. Crime rates for African Americans, though higher than average, were historically low for that community. Drug and alcohol use also were down. The Depression had produced a birth dearth, so the young male population was reduced. And the supercharged economy created a massive and growing middle class in a short period of time; and middle-class people seldom commit crimes of violence. All in all, the 1950s was a golden age of low crime.

Frum: That answer showcases the most provocative feature of your book: your belief that different cultural groups show different propensities for crime, enduring over time, and that these groups carry these propensities with them when they migrate from place to place. As I don’t have to tell you, this idea and its implications stir more controversy among criminologists than any other. Would you state your position as precisely as possible in this brief space? I’ll then review some of the objections and ask you to answer them.

Latzer: First of all, culture and race, in the biological or genetic sense, are very different. Were it not for the racism of the 18th and 19th centuries, we might not have had a marked cultural difference between blacks and whites in the U.S. But history cannot be altered, only studied and sometimes deplored.

Different groups of people, insofar as they consider themselves separate from others, share various cultural characteristics: dietary, religious, linguistic, artistic, etc. They also share common beliefs and values. There is nothing terribly controversial about this. If it is mistaken then the entire fields of sociology and anthropology are built on mistaken premises.

With respect to violent crime, scholars are most interested in a group's preference for violence as a way of resolving interpersonal conflict. Some groups, traditionally rural, developed cultures of “honor”—strong sensitivities to personal insult. We see this among white and black southerners in the 19th century, and among southern Italian and Mexican immigrants to the U.S. in the early 20th century. These groups engaged in high levels of assaultive crimes in response to perceived slights, mainly victimizing their own kind. This honor culture explains the high rates of violent crime among African Americans who, living amidst southern whites for over a century, incorporated those values. When blacks migrated north in the 20th century, they transported these rates of violence. Elijah Anderson's book, The Code of the Streets, describes the phenomenon, and Thomas Sowell, in Black Liberals and White Rednecks, helps explain it.

In the case of blacks, the big change in terms of violence was the high robbery rates and the concomitantly high white victimization rates of the post-60s era (robbery being a crime against strangers). These were products of the massive postwar spike in black migration to northern cities (800,000 in the 1960s; 1.8 million in the ‘70s); the black baby boom coming of age for violence (late adolescence, early manhood); a youth crime contagion, in which crime became cool and young males copied one another and began mugging with impunity; and the opportunities for victimization presented by whites who moved about northern cities with lots of cash and valuables.

Theories of crime that point to poverty and racism have the advantage of explaining why low-income groups predominate when it comes to violent crime. What they really explain, though, is why more affluent groups refrain from such crime. And the answer is that middle-class people (regardless of race) stand to lose a great deal from such behavior. Wisely, more affluent people go to law and seek other nonviolent methods to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Poor people, and especially young, male poor people, do not. Their perceived stake in the established order is tenuous.

The cultural explanation for violence is superior to explanations that rest of poverty or racism, however, because it can account for the differentials in the violent-crime rates of groups with comparable adversities. My favorite illustration of this is the Haitian situation in 1980s Miami. Here was a group of black people coming to the U.S. illegally in makeshift boats. They had a brutal history of slavery, and were illiterate in English, impoverished, and unwelcome. Yet their violent-crime rates were much lower than those of African Americans living in the same city in the same time period. If cultural differences don’t explain this, then what does?

Frum: Let’s flash forward to the present day. You make short work of most of the theories explaining the crime drop-off since the mid-1990s: the Freakonomics theory that attributes the crime decline to easier access to abortion after 1970; the theory that credits reductions in lead poisoning; and the theory that credits the mid-1990s economic spurt. Why are these ideas wrong? And what would you put in their place?

Latzer: The abortion theory has suffered some very serious methodological criticisms of late, leading to damaging concessions by Steven Levitt. But aside from this, both the abortion and leaded-gasoline theories are mistaken because of a failure to explain the crime spike that immediately preceded the great downturn. Abortions became freely available starting in the 1970s, which is also when lead was removed from gasoline. Fast-forward 15 to 20 years to the period in which unwanted babies had been removed from the population and were not part of the late adolescent, early adult, cohort. This cohort was responsible for the huge spike in crime in the late 1980s, early 1990s, the crack cocaine crime rise. Why didn't the winnowing through abortion of this population reduce crime? Why did young people instead generate a major crime increase? The abortion theory is unable to explain this. Instead, it focuses on the crime decline that began in 1993. Likewise, the lead removal theory. The same "lead-free" generation that engaged in less crime from 1993 on committed high rates of violent crime between 1987 and 1992. Incidentally, there was plenty of lead in gasoline in the 1950s and early 60s when violent crime was low.

As for economic booms, it is tempting to argue that they reduce crime on the theory that people who have jobs and higher incomes have less incentive to rob and steal. This is true. But violent crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, assault, and rape, are not motivated by pecuniary interests. They are motivated by arguments, often of a seemingly petty nature, desires for sexual conquest by violence in the case of rape, or domestic conflicts, none of which are related to general economic conditions. Consequently, violent crime rates may decline in periods of recession, such as the 1890s, 1930s or 2007-2009, while rising in boom eras, such as the 1920s and late 1960s.

Rises in violent crime have much more to do with migrations of high-crime cultures, especially to locations in which governments, particularly crime-control agents, are weak. Declines are more likely when crime controls are strong, and there are no migrations or demographic changes associated with crime rises.

In the middle 1990s, the sudden end of the crack cocaine era set off the most recent crime trough. Crack was a youth contagion, a massive copying phenomenon, that ended as suddenly as it had begun. It ended because law enforcement clamped down on drug violators and drug-gang distributors, because the drugs were extremely destructive to the health and well-being of the users, and, mainly, because crack suddenly became uncool—a positive contagion. But the entire crack crime rise, from roughly 1987 to 1992, was a surprise in that violent crime had begun to fall in the early 1980s when the baby boom generation started aging out of violence. Only in the late 80s, when the boomer offspring began using crack, did crime rise once again. This surge lasted but six years, whereupon the decline resumed.

In short, the aging of the violent boomer generation followed by the sudden rise and demise of the crack epidemic best explains the crime trough that began in the mid-1990s and seems to be continuing even today. Contrary to leftist claims, strengthened law enforcement played a major role in the crime decline. The strengthening was the result of criminal-justice policy changes demanded by the public, black and white, and was necessitated by the weakness of the criminal justice system in the late ‘60s. On the other hand, conservatives tend to rely too much on the strength of the criminal-justice system in explaining crime oscillations, which, as I said, have a great to do with migrations and demographics. Still, weak law enforcement has been responsible for a great deal of violence—in the 19th century South and “Wild West,” and in the North in the late 1960s. The contemporary challenge is to keep law enforcement strong without alienating African Americans, an especially difficult proposition given the outsized violent-crime rates in low-income black communities.

Frum: The sad exception to the downward trend in crime since 1990 is the apparent increase in mass shootings—like the atrocity in Orlando, where a shooter apparently motivated by Islamic ideology killed 49 in a gay nightclub. Should such attacks be included in our thinking about crime? If so, how should we think about them?

Latzer: If mass killings are defined as four or more victims per incident, then, like ordinary crime, mass killings are a product of quarrels, anger, and the ready availability of firearms because seven out of 10 occur in a private residence. Mental illness and substance abuse may also be factors. If we separate out the ideologically motivated mass killings, such as Orlando (apparently) and San Bernardino, then we have a different problem. Surveilling potential killers who share a violent ideology will be extremely difficult but worthwhile. Limiting the availability of rapid-fire weapons with high-capacity ammunition clips is also worth doing, but politically divisive. And, of course, developments abroad will affect the number of incidents, as will the copycat effect in the immediate aftermath of an incident. This is a complex problem, different from ordinary killings, which, by the way, take many more lives.