Weekend Reads: Slate Asks: “Is there an Obama effect on crime?”

Slate this week looked at the declining crime rates across America and asked, “is there an Obama effect on crime?”

Obama effect?

Slate explains:

[The “Obama Effect”] 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.

Citing the oft-cited relationship between better economic prosperity and lower crime rates, Slate reporter James Verini asked criminologists why, given the current recession, we have seen crime rates drop.

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.

Sorting through the statistics for early 2009, [Ohio State University’s Randolph] 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.

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.”

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