Is There an “Obama Effect” on Crime?
A surprising new theory for the continuing crime decline among black Americans.
Like the continuing decline in crime, the legitimacy theory and analyses like Anderson’s have upended ideas about the economic causes of crime. “Most explanations of crime in criminology are social-structural—unemployment, divorce, etcetera,” LaFree, author of Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America, says. “But I think it’s the case that historical events may be better predictors of crime than structural elements.” LaFree pointed to the social upheavals of the 1960s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Both events took place during economic boom times, and yet both events were accompanied by increases in crime. He thinks that while it is too early to tell, Obama’s election could prove such event, but one with more beneficial effects.
But not if the economy continues to deteriorate. If that happens, the primacy of economic explanations for crime may regain ground, and something reminiscent of the 1970s may result—high unemployment, stagnant wages, and plummeting faith in government to boot. (If Obama’s and Congress’ approval ratings are any indication, the last may already be happening.) The ‘60s and ‘70s “brought not just a government crisis, but a family crisis, a business crisis—a major institutional crisis,” LaFree says. “That’s not happening. You don’t have people marching in the streets—yet. My guess is if conditions remain poor, they will start.”
But Roth wonders if dips in perceptions of government legitimacy occur not just along historical but also racial lines. He points out that in the last half-century, the black homicide rate hit its crest in the period between 1971 and 1974, when, he believes, black trust in government reached its lowest levels since WWII. But the white homicide rate peaked in 1980, “during the final year of the Carter administration, when white trust in government reached its postwar low because of accumulated anger over busing, welfare, affirmative action, the defeat in Vietnam, and the seizure of American hostages in Iran.”
Similarly, sorting through the statistics for early 2009, Roth found that while homicides declined precipitately in cities in states that went for Obama in 2008, they rose in cities of 100,000 people or more in the six states that had the largest percentage of counties to vote more heavily Republican in 2008 than 2004, i.e., the most conspicuously opposed to Obama. These include Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He adds that these states include some of the largest percentages of people who believe Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen—people, in other words, who may suddenly feel a marked absence of government legitimacy. But there is no proof that those higher homicide rates were concentrated among whites, and his theory doesn’t explain, among other things, the 26 percent decline in homicides in Birmingham during the same period, nor the increase in homicides in cities like Dallas and New Orleans, which have among the largest urban black populations in America.
Elijah Anderson believes there is an Obama effect on crime, and that the election gave black people a new sense of the future. But he also believes that a revived black civic culture had been discouraging crime, and priming the ground for an Obama, for years. He describes in The Cosmopolitan Canopy how a renewed sense of the importance of collective rectitude, even a call to atonement, had been taking hold in black communities long before 2008, citing such events as the Million Man March, which called on black men to be better citizens and fathers. Obama knows this, Anderson says, and knows how to evoke it. “He speaks to a deep vein of social conservatism among black working people by emphasizing personal responsibility,” Anderson says. “In a way, Obama is a manifestation of a tradition of black conservatism that had been buried for decades. He’s not so much of it, but he’s at least tapping into it.”
In other words, Obama could be as much the result of an Obama effect as the cause of it.
But some criminologists believe that those like Roth and Anderson who theorize about an Obama effect are letting their joy at his election affect their research. “We project our feelings,” Franklin Zimring told me. “A lot of us never felt more wonderful in our lives than on election night in 2008. So it’s a projection technique. It’s sort of a Rorschach test for creative social scientists. Is it possible there’s on Obama effect on crime? Yes. Is there a way of testing it on American crime data? Probably not.”
Also, the latest comprehensive crime data we have are for 2009. Anecdotal evidence suggests the crime decline is continuing in cities, but since then, as we know, trust in Obama and the rest of the federal government has plummeted, especially among whites, who profess to be more discontented with Washington than at any time since crime began declining in the 1990s. Whether that discontent will translate into the kind of drop in perceptions of institutional legitimacy that characterized the ‘60s and ‘70s is yet to be seen. If the rise in homicide arrests among whites between 2008 and 2009 that accompanied the drop among blacks is an indication, this may already be happening.
Finally, there is the suddenness of an Obama effect. Singular events can have fleeting effects on crime rates. It’s believed that crime fell dramatically after the Kennedy assassination, for instance, and after 9/11, for short periods. But as far as they can discern why they change at all, experts tend to believe crime rates shift because of years-long phenomena. So, while the recent drops are remarkable, it is also true that black and white crime rates have been converging for decades. And during that time—to name just one possible causal factor—police have slowly come to learn that they can take preventive approaches to crime. What we’re seeing now, then, may be more the dividend of long-term trends than of a single day in 2008.
You can read James Verini's other work at www.jamesverini.com.