III. Race-Specific Homicide Trends
As described, the changes in total homicide rates since the 1980s were dramatic, particularly the now well-documented decline of the 1990s. But the reality is that the trends are even more striking when separated by racial groups during this time period. When homicide trends are examined for whites and blacks separately, for example, two important differences are revealed. First, the homicide victim rate among blacks is much higher, with more extreme peaks and drops than the white homicide rate or the total homicide rate (see Figure 1). In fact, the black homicide rate was 25.8 in 1980, as compared to 19.0 per 100,000 city residents for total homicide. Between 1980 and 1985, the drop in black homicide rates is similar to the rate drop in total homicides (16% versus 20%, respectively). The exception is a large dip in black homicide rates in 1987 (19.43 per 100,000 population). By the 1990s, however, the crime drop in black homicide rates was considerable in magnitude, marking a 45% drop; that is, the rate was nearly cut in half. Subsequent years, on the other hand, show an increase in black homicide rates during the 2000s (approximately ranging from 14.4 to 16.5 per 100,000).
Second, the change in white homicide rates over time is modest, to say the least, suggesting stability rather than variability when compared to black homicide rates and total homicide rates. That is, white homicide rates peaked in 1980, reaching a rate of 5.89 per 100,000 white residents, while in comparison, the total homicide rate peaked in the early 1990s. From 1980 to 1985, white homicide rates dropped 6.8% (from 5.89 to 5.49) and then dropped again in the late 1980s (a 4.5% drop), only to continue to descend throughout the 1990s and into 2000 by another 17%. This drop was far lower in magnitude when compared to total and black homicide rates. Overall, then, white homicides averaged 5 per 100,000 white residents throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. By 1998, white homicide rates dropped below 5 per 100,000 white residents for the first time, staying in the mid to low 4s since then (Parker, 2008). Thus, among the notable differences in white homicide rates is the lack of a peak around 1991 and little to no change in offending rates throughout the 1990s. On the other hand, there were considerable shifts and fluctuations in the rates for black homicide rates and total homicide rates over the last three decades. These trends, specifically the differences across racial groups, required researchers to move the discussion away from total homicide rates. Furthermore, it drew attention to whether white and black homicide rates were converging for the first time.
Figure 1. Homicide Rate per 100,000 Residents in Total and by Race, 1980–2003 (Adjusted Supplemental Homicide Reports)
SOURCE: Parker, K. F. (2008). Unequal Crime Decline. New York: New York University Press.
A. Divergence or Convergence
The racial patterns in homicide trends reveal some interesting findings. First, the trends in black and total homicide rates are similar over time, but white homicide rates follow a different pattern. That is, while both black and total homicide rates experienced a decline in the early 1980s, followed by increases in the late 1980s, only to drop again in the 1990s, the decline in white homicide rates was more modest and steady over the 24-year period. An equally important issue is whether the racial gap in homicide is persisting or narrowing over time. Recent evidence suggests that the racial gap has indeed narrowed, and the racial disparities between groups have declined with the crime drop. That is, by examining the racial difference in homicide offending rates (based on the ratio of black to white homicide rates), it is now known that both black and white homicide rates decreased in the late 1990s and that the racial gap between these groups also narrowed considerably (in fact, by approximately 37%). This is an important reality about homicide that only recently gained attention, largely due to the work by LaFree et al. (2006), and it cannot be understated. In LaFree et al.’s work, they reveal that the black– white gap in violence was exceptionally high during the 1960s, but that gap has decreased over time. They argue that the narrowing of the racial gap is likely linked to the narrowing of crime-generating structural characteristics, such as social and economic indicators. According to LaFree et al., only by examining homicide trends separately by racial groups is it apparent that the racial gap has narrowed. Furthermore, evidence has surfaced that the narrowing of the gap is largely attributed to the rapid decline in black homicide rates during the 1990s, more than to any changes in white homicide rates (see Parker, 2008). This finding alone adds considerable weight to the efforts to diversify the study of homicide.