The 1980s crack epidemic created a vicious spike in homicides in major cities across the United States. As the epidemic faded, so did the street killings. While the murder rate went down for all races, however, it stayed persistently high for one demographic group: young black males. Seventeen years after the arrival of crack in a given city, homicide rates among young black males remained 70% higher than they had been beforehand.
So concludes a newly published study, “Guns and Violence: The Enduring Impact of Crack Cocaine Markets on Young Black Males,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“The long run effects of this increase in violence are large,” write the authors William N. Evans, Timothy J. Moore, and Craig Garthwaite. “We attribute nearly eight percent of the murders in 2000 to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets. Elevated murder rates for younger black males continue through to today and can explain fully one tenth of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.”
For a work of economics, the driest of the social sciences, this study makes fascinating reading. While the authors themselves do not extrapolate their findings to broader public policy debates, others almost certainly will do so. The study illuminates the causes of black violence in places as disparate as Chicago (66 shot, 12 killed in a recent weekend) and Richmond (five people shot at a Shockoe Bottom restaurant over the weekend). It does not fit easily with liberals’ white oppression/black victimization narrative. Nor does it give any comfort to conservatives’ people-kill-people/guns-don’t-kill-people narrative.
Reality is complex. Ideologically driven narratives do violence to reality. Our job as informed citizens is to fathom those complexities. And this study is a good place to start. Here follow some highlights of the study.
The United States has seen a 25-year decline in its murder rate. Scholars have advanced a variety of theories to explain it — the legalization of abortion, the birth dearth and declining percentage of young males in the population, increased imprisonment rates, changes in police strategies, better emergency medicine, a decline in teen births, and the removal of lead from gasoline. The main flaw in these theories, suggest Evans et al is that they fail to explain the differing experiences of demographic sub-groups: “Young black males in the United States have failed to enjoy a long-run decline similar to other demographic groups, including older black males.”
Between 1968 and 1984 older and younger black males had remarkably similar murder rates. The rates diverged sharply after 1984. The murder rate for young black males roughly doubled by 1993, peaking at 164 murders per 100,000 population. While their murder rate fell to half the peak six years later, it declined only slightly thereafter. As a result, in 2015 the murder rate for young black males was 23 percent higher than the rate in 1984. By contrast, the murder rate of older black males fell by 54%.
The murder rate among whites likewise surged between 1984 and 1992 (though from a lower base and by a smaller percentage). Unlike the experience of young black males, the murder rate for young white males continued to decline throughout the 2000s.
Here is the authors’ explanation:
The daily experiences of young black males were fundamentally altered by the emergence of crack cocaine markets in the United States. … The diffusion of guns both as a part of, and in response to, these violent crack markets permanently changed the young black males’ rates of gun possession and their norms around carrying guns.
Large-scale cocaine traffic entered the United States in the early 1980s, driven by the Latin American drug cartels. Initially, the drug was expensive, making it unaffordable to lower-income populations. But the innovation of cooking cocaine with baking soda and water, allowing it to cool and harden so it could be broken into “rocks” that could be smoked, expanded the market. A single dosage could be sold profitably for as little as $2.50, which lower-income Americans could afford.
Unlike powder cocaine, which tended to be sold discretely in private locations between dealers and customers who had pre-existing business relationships, crack was sold frequently in small doses between dealers and customers had made no pre-existing contacts — in open-air markets. The nature of the crack market put a premium on certain geographic locations. Drug dealers began using violence to defend their turf from competitors.
As crack dealing spread from the original cocaine depots of Miami, New York and Los Angeles to smaller cities, violence spread with it. Crack arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1985 and in Hampton Roads in 1987, according to data in the article’s appendix. (Crack came to Richmond, situated on the crack highway of Interstate 95, about the same time.) Murder rates soared. Killings were so prevalent in Richmond that the city became notorious as a “murder capital” of the U.S. Everywhere it went, crack changed local attitudes toward guns. Write Evans et al:
The violence from crack markets was not limited solely to its participants. While organized crack markets were primarily run by young black males, the majority of black males avoided participation in these illicit activities. … Instead, their close proximity to friends and acquaintances involved in the drug trade exposed them to increased risk of violence, a fact that encouraged many to carry guns.
When young men carried guns, they were tempted to use them when they get into altercations. Youth violence became “decoupled” from drug and gang activity, spilling over into more routine interactions such as bar fights and domestic quarrels.
(There are direct parallels between violence in America’s inner cities and the West Virginia coalfields of the 1900s, ’10s, and ’20s. Rates of gun ownership were exceedingly high among the Appalachian mountaineers, and to a lesser extent the migrant blacks, who worked in the coal mines. Drugs were not a problem then, but moonshine was. Newspapers accounts are full of tales of fatal arguments, mostly shootings, mostly after altercations involving young men. I suspect that the murder rate was comparable to what we see in inner cities today.)
After several horrific years, crack-related violence receded. There are a number of theories why. Popularity of the drug declined, and so did the number of dealers. Alternatively, as drug markets matured, dealers worked out non-violent ways to maintain their turf. Similarly, the proliferation of cell phones moved much of the crack business off the street and behind closed doors. While crack-related killings declined, young black men did not give up their guns. And the large number of guns increased the lethality of non drug-related disputes. Young black males’ rate for murder of family members and intimate partners remained double of what it would have been had the trends followed the path of older black males. Suicide rates for young black males also remained persistently high.
“The combined evidence of a sustained increase in gun suicide rates, an increase in the share of all murders attributed to young black male offenders, and the widespread increase in murder rates across relationship types provide evidence of firearms as the mechanism driving the persistently higher murder rate for young black males,” the authors conclude. “The additional exposure to violence stemming from the emergence of crack cocaine markets has had a meaningful impact on the longevity of black males in the United States.”
Bacon’s bottom line. Several thoughts emanate from a reading of this study.
First, it’s impossible to deny the strong connection between the prevalence of firearm ownership and gun violence. The authors hit upon an obvious truth that goes AWOL during much of the discussion about guns: When everyone else is armed and there is violence all around you, you’re more likely to pack heat for self protection. If you get into a fight and have a gun, you’re more likely to use it. The prevalence of gun own ownership does increase the lethality of altercations.
But some programs to curb gun violence, such as gun buyback programs, can be hopelessly naive. If people feel threatened by violence, they’re not going relinquish their firearms. However, once the violence subsides and people feel more secure, gun buyback programs might be useful. By reducing gun ownership, such programs might reduce the lethality of routine disputes and help reduce the murder rate.
Second, the article both undermines and supports the narrative that harsh laws punishing crack cocaine are racist. Americans — especially those living in the inner cities who were exposed to it, mostly African-Americans — were shocked and frightened by the explosion in crack-related violence in the 1980s. The enactment of laws to suppress that crack dealing was entirely justified. While black males were arrested in disproportionate numbers, making them victims in the eyes of social justice warriors, homicide victims also were disproportionately black. An indifference to the surge in black crime victims would have been described as racist. Victim-mongers assuredly would have advanced the argument that cocaine use wasn’t seen as a problem as long as the crime victims were black, not white.
Now that the crack-murder epidemic has subsided significantly, however, it may be worth taking another look at the laws. The ACLU argues that crack is no more addictive or dangerous than powder cocaine and that the draconian punishments for crack contribute to the mass incarceration of black males. I’m not totally convinced by the ACLU’s logic, but this article persuades me that the subject is worth exploring.
Third, there are implications for the way we look at life-expectancy numbers of blacks and whites. Many assume that a black-white gap in longevity reflects the underlying racism of our institutions, in particular of the health care system. But the crack epidemic, engineered by Latin American drug cartels and exploited by black street dealers, cannot be blamed on white racism. One cannot logically assert that draconian anti-crack laws are racist and then turn around and say that the lingering after-effects of the crack epidemic upon black life expectancy are also the result of racism.There are currently no comments highlighted.