Ever since crime started declining in American cities in the 1990s, researchers have been hunting for the reasons why. After more than a decade of research, many argued that smarter policing, more incarceration, the waning of the crack epidemic, improved home security, and legislation such as the Brady Bill had a role in cutting crime. More speculatively, some posit that an aging population, legal abortion (an argument first advanced in the Quarterly Journal of Economics Steven Levitt and later popularized in his book Freakonomics), the rise of mood-improving drugs, and, a theory that’s attracted much attention lately, laws banning lead in paint, may have contributed to the decline.
Until recently, almost all criminologists could agree on one factor: the good economy. Nothing is as taken for granted (at least by liberals) as this connection between crime and economics. The higher are employment and wages, the thinking goes, the less crime people commit—and vice versa.
But then, unexpectedly, the crime decline of the last two decades did not end with the economic collapse of 2008. On the contrary, decreases in violent crime have not just continued in many places since, according to the latest numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, but they appear to have accelerated in some cities. In the first half of 2009, homicides plummeted an astounding 67 percent over 2008 in Minneapolis, 47 percent in Seattle, 39 percent in Charlotte, 31 percent in New York, and 17 percent in Los Angeles. As surprisingly, these declines occurred in black communities, which suffer disproportionately from unemployment and stagnating wages and from crime (about half of all violent crimes in the United States involve blacks)—even as the growth in the prison population, also disproportionately black, has halted.
Experts are baffled. “Blacks in the U.S. are like the canary in the mine. Their crime rates go up faster during recessions, and go down faster in good times,” says Gary LaFree, director of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Maryland. Franklin Zimring, a U.C.-Berkeley criminologist whose new book, The City That Became Safe, explores the crime drop in New York, told me: “The crime decline of 2008 to 2010 comes at a really inconvenient time for the conventional wisdom, in two respects. One, the economy is going to hell, and two, this is the first time in forty years that we are not removing more prisoners from the streets than we’re sending back.”
So what could account for it?
One unlikely explanation that is gaining credence among experts, including some of the biggest names in the field, is a phenomenon tentatively dubbed “the Obama Effect.” Simply put, it holds that the election of the first black president has provided such collective inspiration that it has changed the thinking or behavior of would-be or one-time criminals. The effect is not yet quantifiable, but some very numbers-driven researchers believe it may exist.
Rick Rosenfeld, the president of the American Society of Criminology, studies the relationship between consumer sentiment and crime rates, which appear to track closely. Despite the recession, Rosenfeld has found, black Americans are remarkably confident about their economic futures. In 2009, despite being in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, 39 percent of black people surveyed said they were better off than they’d been five years before, as opposed to just 20 percent who answered that question in the affirmative in 2007. In the same survey, there was a 14 percent increase among blacks who said they thought the standard of living gap between themselves and whites was diminishing, and a 9 percent increase in blacks who believed that the future for black people will be better.
“I think there’s little question the election had the effect of improving the general outlook of blacks and especially their economic outlook,” Rosenfeld told me. “Normally, blacks tend to be more pessimistic about economic prospects, even in good economic times.”
Ohio State University’s Randolph Roth, author of the magisterial 2009 volume American Homicide, is so convinced Obama’s election has fundamentally improved black people’s outlooks, in spite of what may be their actual circumstances, he published an essay last year explaining the crime drop with the title “It’s No Mystery.” “The inauguration of the first black president and the passing of the Bush administration re-legitimized the government in the eyes of many Americans during the first few months of 2009,” he writes. “African Americans and other racial minorities, who live disproportionately in America’s cities, were more deeply affected than anyone else, and it is likely that their greater trust in the political process and their positive feelings about the new president led to lower rates of urban violence.”
Roth is tapping into a line of argument that has been gaining ground in criminology in recent years. Generally referred to as the “legitimacy” theory, it posits that the greater people’s belief in the legitimacy of social institutions and government, the greater their inclination to obey laws. Roth describes it this way: “If people believe that their government shares their values, speaks for them and acts on their behalf, they feel empowered, have greater self-respect and gain confidence in their dealings with people outside their families. When people feel that the government is antagonistic toward them and they question its legitimacy, especially on the national level, they can feel frustrated, alienated, and dishonored.”
The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of a new book on race relations, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, also agrees with the legitimacy argument, but he believes the psychological shift taking place in black people’s minds since Obama’s election is more profound. “Now we have a sense of future,” he says. “All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.”