By Mike Males / Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Imagine that a time-liberated version of vigilante George Zimmerman sees two youths walking through his neighborhood: black, hoodied Trayvon Martin of 2012, and a white teen from 1959 (say Bud Anderson from Father Knows Best). Based purely on statistics of race and era, which one should Zimmerman most fear of harboring criminal intent? Answer: He should fear (actually, not fear) them equally; each has about the same low odds of committing a crime.
For nearly all serious and minor offenses, including homicide, rates among black teenagers nationally were lower in 2011 than when racial statistics were first collected nationally in 1964. Black youths’ murder arrest rates are considerably lower today than back when Bill Cosby was funny (long, long ago).
We don’t associate Jim and Margaret Anderson’s 1950s cherubs with juvenile crime—but that’s based on nostalgia and cultural biases, not fact. Back then, nearly 1 in 10 youth were arrested every year; today, around 3 in 100. Limited statistics of the 1950s show juvenile crime wasn’t just pranks and joyriding; “younger and younger children” are committing “the most wanton and senseless of murders… and mass rape,” the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency warned in 1956.
Since the sainted Fifties, America has seen rapid teenage population growth and dramatic shifts toward more single parenting, more lethal drugs and weapons, increased middle-aged (that is, parent-age) drug abuse and imprisonment, decreased incarceration of youth, decreased youthful religious affiliation, and more violent and explicit media available to younger ages. Horrifying, as the culture critics far Right to far Left—including Obama, who spends many pages and speeches berating popular culture as some major driver of bad youth behavior—repeatedly insist.
And after 50 years of all these terrible changes in American culture? Today’s young African Americans display the lowestrates of crime and serious risk of any generation that can be reliably assessed.
In the last 20 years in particular, the FBI reports, rates of crime among African American youth have plummeted: All offenses (down 47%), drug offenses (down 50%), property offenses (down 51%), serious Part I offenses (down 53%), assault (down 59%), robbery (down 60%), all violent offenses (down 60%), rape (down 66%), and murder (down 82%).
New, 2012 figures from California’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center reveal that the state’s black youth show the lowest level of homicide arrest since statewide racial tabulations were first assembled in 1960. Nearly every type of offense—felony, misdemeanor, and status—is much rarer among black youth today than in past generations.
The black youth crime drop is not due to “getting tough”—just the opposite. In 2012, a record-low 231 California black youth were locked up in state correctional facilities, compared to over 2,000 in the mid-1990s, and 800 in 1959, the first year numbers were kept. “Status crime” policing of black youth, reflected in curfew, loitering, and other non-criminal-stops, also has fallen to record lows. Little solid evidence connects policies to reduced crime, except maybe for the correlation with increased college enrollment.
You can see from these paragraphs why the huge improvements in behavior among America’s, and particularly California’s, African American teenagers over the last 20 to 40 years is a distressing development for so many powerful interests across the spectrum.
According to everyone’s pet theories and fine-tuned profit prospectus, this wasn’t supposed to happen. And so, on rightist Fox and liberal MSNBC, from President Obama and the local Tea Party legislator, from pundits reactionary to radical, any notion of praising young African Americans even for the most obvious and mammoth improvements in behavior is utterly taboo.
For example, FBI clearance and arrest tabulations now indicate black youths under age 18 account for just 2% of the nation’s homicides. See if you can find that vital perspective in any politician, expert, or major-media commentary.
Rather, the time period when all interests felt their headiest was the early 1990s. Police, pundits, politicians, and News@11 gushed with the terrors of the crack epidemic, “adolescent superpredators,” teenage “sociopaths,” murderous gangs marauding from inner city to suburb to Mayberry, and an ever worsening “crime storm” of dark-skinned zombies slavering to “murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high…so long as their youthful energies hold out.”
Indeed, the statistics of California in 1990 were alarming:
- 221 black youths were arrested for murder,
- 4,235 for drug offenses
- 6,884 for violent felonies,
- 22,441 for all felonies, and
- 45,703 for all offenses.
In 2012, in a California black-youth population of similar size (around 250,000 age 10-17) and a similarly complete statewide crime report:
- 20 black youths were arrested for murder,
- 1,019 for drug offenses
- 2,886 for violent felonies,
- 8,288 for all felonies, and
- 24,889 for all offenses.
How can this mammoth decline not be front-page news—especially to inform the ongoing Trayvon Martin and Fruitvale murder discussions?
The sad reality is that authorities, academic experts, politicians, and geriatric-media reporters (the average age of news consumers is well over 50) of 2013 simply do not know how to deal with a young black population that is not committing shootings, robberies, drug mayhem, and gangsterisms in mass numbers—let alone one that is dramatically less criminal than the older generations deploring them.
Listen to today’s media panels, politician speeches, even academic forums: the last 20 years never happened. Only young people commit crime and use and sell drugs, the commentariat herd recites. From CNN’s Anderson Cooper to First Lady Michelle Obama, young black men are always misrepresented as getting more violent.
America’s warped crime and social policy establishment badly needs black youth to be killers and thugs, to retreat into the comforts of 1990, nostalgia for a past that never existed, and smug, politically and fiscally profitable prophecies of demographic doom. In America of 2013, just as in 1913, feared scapegoats on which to blame social problems remain a hotter commodity than scientific analysis and effective policy.
Originally posted at CJCJ.org / Reprinted by permission
Mike Males is Senior Research Fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco. He is the author of Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.