The ultimate price of costless gestures

2020's 2,000+ excess black lives lost to murder

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Those of us who are “Generation X” and older are starting to experience deja vu when it comes to crime rates. My generation came of age during the “Great Crime Wave” of the 1970s and 1980s. By the mid-1990’s, the wave was receding, but in the broader culture, that really didn’t sink in until the end of the decade. 1994’s “Crime Bill” passed in the context of the idea of “superpredators,” a legislative reaction to ubiquitous fears of crime across the populace, and widespread experience of victimization. And yet it was already behind the times. Violent crime was declining year after year just as the bill was enacted.

One of the reasons that I view 1999 as an annus mirabilis is that as a society we began to believe that the crime wave had finally ended by the late 1990’s. The dot-com economic miracle was in full effect and Osama bin Laden some obscure figure in Afghanistan. What could go wrong?


But all good things come to an end. 9/11 shocked us out of our geopolitical complacency. Two recessions in the 2000’s were sobering reminders that neoliberal capitalism didn’t have it all figured out. And then, the generation-long decline in the rate of homicide ended in the middle of the 2010’s. Now, the best estimates* are that 2020 saw a massive spike in homicides across the USA. More than 20,000 people were murdered in 2020, a 25% increase from 2019.

The results for individual cities are sobering:

A notable contrast with homicide is that property crime rates continue to drop. 2020 saw an increase in murder and aggravated assault, but not rape, robbery or burglary. Some of this can be attributed to COVID-19 restrictions, as many more Americans were present in their home at all times. The rise of a cashless economy also makes muggings less profitable.

So should we worry about homicide rates having regained 1990’s levels? One variable we need to consider is changing demographics. In 1970, the median age for American males was 27. In 1990 it was 32. By 2020 it was 37. Age matters because more than half of homicides are committed by people between the ages of 15 and 29, in particular, young males. Homicide rates may be the same as in 1995, but the population is older, so accounting for demographics, we’re doing worse.

Now, let’s talk about something in the news: people killed by the police. Here are data from the past five years:


Around 250 black Americans are killed by police per year (white and Hispanic numbers are 450 and 150 respectively per year). 2020’s final tally of homicide victims will likely top 20,000. In 2019, 55% of the American victims of homicide were black. Likely more than 11,000 black Americans will have died of homicide in 2020. A 25% increase from 2019 would mean over 2,000 more deaths of black Americans by homicide in 2020. A single year’s increase in black homicide victims alone then is 10 times the annual total of black Americans killed by police.

These are the raw data in actual human lives. Easy enough to find through free search engines. 

Let’s consider the possibility that the 2020’s will be defined by a modest return to a higher level of homicide. What would the cultural effects be? How would this impact you?

Despite what you might see in movies like Joker, the 1970’s and 1980’s were not uniformly dark and brutal. 1982’s E. T. the Extraterrestrial is set in an idyllic San Fernando Valley. Most of the kids I knew in a run-down, rust-belt neighborhood walked to and from school daily from kindergarten onward. This was America too. Lived violence and crime were highly localized. Those of us outside major urban areas were habituated to fear crime, but it rarely touched our own lives. It was an abstraction. In the 1980’s I lived in New York, but upstate. Going to New York City was an adventure, and the sense that we could be victimized at any moment was palpable. Those of my generation who grew up in New York City during this period commonly recount being mugged and knowing which zones of the city were “no-go.” I spent the early 1990’s in rural eastern Oregon, fearing urban crime when my family would visit Portland (true story: despite there being only 30-50 murders per year in the early 1990’s, our NYC watchfulness died hard). 


During the Great Crime Wave, everyone worried about being a victim. But only a minority of the population experienced routine victimization and ubiquitous violence. These tended to be poor and working-class racial minorities in large urban areas. For the rest of us, crime was usually mercifully abstract. For them, it was a daily experience. If crime rates fully rebound, upper-middle-class professionals may lose the opportunity to spend their 20’s and 30’s in vibrant urban cores, but that will be the sum total of the personal inconvenience to them.

In the wake of calls and moves to "defund the police,” the homicide spike is playing out in the same socially and economically deprived areas that crime disparately impacted in the 1970s and 1980’s. It is entirely understandable that 72% of black Americans oppose “defunding the police.”  Whatever problems there are with policing, the solution for all but anarchists is to fix the problems, not wish them away by hamstringing the main forces of order and justice.

If history is repeating itself, perhaps it is time we learned its lessons. Among these is that the Americans who bear crime’s daily burden and the overreaction of alarmist measures like the Crime Bill are poor, disproportionately black Americans in large cities. Who, on balance, should a poor person in a large American city fear more, an ordinary beat cop patrolling her street or my comfortable white neighbor who sincerely wants to “protect” her by defunding the police?

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* The final data from 2019 and 2020 are not in, so must be estimated.


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If you are on Clubhouse please follow me @RazibKhan (obviously the same on Twitter). Yes, it will be available on Android soon.