Taking the murder surge seriously

People are dying — of hate crimes and other crimes, too

Robert Aaron Long went on a killing spree this week murdering eight people, mostly Asian American women, seemingly targeting certain spas and massage outlets in the Atlanta area.

This has prompted a kind of furious argument as to whether we should understand these murders as anti-Asian hate crimes or perhaps misogynistic hate crimes or whether the shooter was specifically targeting sex workers or whether an intersectional analysis is most appropriate. Li Zhou at Vox offers a great entry into the genre of progressive argumentation about this with her piece “The Atlanta shootings can’t be divorced from racism and misogyny.”

I think a question that a new arrival from Mars might have about this is why is there a partisan argument in the United States about the role of racism in this particular spree killing. And I think to understand that, you need to understand a prior argument that originated in the Bay Area and then spread to national politics. And to understand that argument, you need to see that no matter what you make of the Atlanta mass murders, there was a large increase in the overall number of murders in the United States last year, and that rise in murders calls for a political and policy response.

The 2020 murder surge

Murder data in the United States, unfortunately, reports with a lag, so while it was clear last year that killings were going up in most big cities, we didn’t have a definitive read on the national picture — most people don’t live in big cities. And it’s going to take all the way until September 2021 to get the government’s final official count of how many people were murdered in 2020. But last week, we did get the official preliminary numbers, and it’s a lot of murders.

We’re back up to levels last seen midway through the 1990s crime drop.

This is bad both because it’s sad when innocent people die, and also because high levels of murder cause a lot of secondary problems. For example, we have made some tentative progress in recent years in getting jurisdictions to adopt less exclusionary zoning rules. People aren’t going to want to do that if they think that a more economically diverse neighborhood means a significant increase in the chances that their kid will be killed by a stray bullet.

Children who are proximate to murders are traumatized and do worse in school. If you’re a business owner, the need to take defensive measures against crime raises your cost structure. It’s harder to invest in publicly provided club goods like parks and libraries when there are safety concerns.

And of course, the burden of these crimes does not fall equally. According to Mapping Police Violence, African Americans are killed by police officers at triple the rate of white people. But in the 2019 Uniform Crime Report (this is the most recent demographic data on murders), 54% of murder victims in the United States were Black, even though Black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population. I know that some progressives who don’t want to talk about rising crime believe that their reluctance to do so is motivated by anti-racist zeal. But just by the numbers, that doesn’t make any sense. It is true, however, that fear of crime has often been a political mobilization tool for racists. And progressives are right to worry about that.

Asian crime victimization is on the rise

The fierce dispute about Long’s motives originates earlier, after a number of incidents involving Asian American victims of seemingly unprovoked assaults. These assaults were widely discussed in the Asian community, and progressive leaders in that world became concerned that it would lead to a resurgence of Black/Asian tensions, calls for more policing, backlash against Black Lives Matter, and perhaps the incorporation of more Asian voters into the GOP coalition.

Hate crimes are not super well-measured, but a group called Stop Anti-AAPI Hate emerged with data suggesting that the incidents going viral were part of a larger surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. Antiracism is obviously a form of politics that progressives are very comfortable with, so activists have been seeking to channel concern about the attacks into a broader antiracist push, including a critique of former President Trump’s efforts to channel concern about COVID-19 into anti-Chinese xenophobic hysteria.

Again, I recommend Li Zhou, who laid out the activists’ view on February 10:

Over the past year, anti-Asian incidents have surged across the country: Since last spring, there have been more than 2,800 incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking people’s reports. Ranging from verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence, many of these assaults have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment that seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for the spread of the coronavirus, given its origins in China. Such incidents have only been stoked further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus. 

Activists are working to draw attention to the violence that’s taken place in an effort to pressure local governments to provide more financial support for victims and funding for community-based efforts. Groups including the Oakland Chinatown Coalition, for example, are coordinating volunteers who can help increase street traffic in Chinatown and pick up trash. Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu have also sought to draw attention to this problem, by offering a $25,000 reward for information about the individuals involved in harming the 91-year-old man in Oakland (police have since apprehended a suspect).

As they respond to these attacks, activists emphasize that it’s important for communities of color to stand in solidarity, and to make sure that policing is not viewed as the main form of redress — given how policing has disproportionately harmed Black Americans. Instead, they note that communities need to focus on cross-racial education and healing, in order to raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.

Interest in the attacks is a teachable moment to tell people about the history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States, and a lot of people have done good pieces about that.

The slight inconvenience for this narrative is that at least in the very most viral attacks, including the brutal slaying of Vicha Ratanapakdee, the perpetrators were Black, and thus probably not highly motivated by loyalty to Donald Trump.

Charles Lehman in City Journal laid out the polar opposite view from the progressive narrative — he makes the case that there likely is no surge in anti-Asian bias crimes and there are simply more Asian assault victims because there’s more crime in general. City Journal is a bastion of both pro-police thinking and anti-antiracism — their basic take is that Asian Americans are being victimized not by a surge of racism but by a surge of antiracism that has increased crime.

There are reasonably strong indications, based on analyses of police report data from the biggest cities, that there has been an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. But crime reporting is very spotty; the definition of 'hate crime' is not always clear and consistent, and crime data from outside major cities report with long lags. So it's impossible to answer basic questions about exactly what's happening with any precision. And that’s why the interpretation of Long’s motives has come to have such high stakes. A white spree-killer with anti-Asian bias would illustrate the general point about Asians as victims of white supremacy much better than Ratanapakdee does.

Murder is, in fact, bad

The good news for people who don’t feel comfortable making definitive pronouncements based on ambiguous data is that there clearly has been a huge surge in people getting shot and killed.

If you accept the racists’ view that the only way to express concern about the rising tide of murder is to embrace racism, then this leaves you with a problem. But I think it is in fact not racist to express concern about a rising surge of murders. Now as I have been saying since last summer, the real problem was deciding that police play no role in reducing crime, which led a lot of progressives who think racism is bad (I agree!) to express that view last summer by indulging the idea that we should defund or abolish police departments.

The current state of the art on this debate in this takesverse is that people do backward-looking analysis and ask why did murder go up so much in 2020? Was it the pandemic? Was it the protests?

And if you think it was the protests, you can parse that in two ways. One, the pro-cop way, is to say that city officials were so critical of police departments that they became unable to use their best crime-fighting techniques. Another more cop-skeptical take is that police departments staged a de facto strike — throwing a fit at the slightest hint of accountability.

I’m a solutions guy. We can certainly hope that the waning of the pandemic leads to less murder in 2021. And I can think of some reasons to believe that it will. Idle young men are tinder for violence, and having tons of stuff closed and nobody in school for months and months at a time seems like bad news. Get teenagers back in school; get more people working; give people more stuff to do for fun; and you may well see less crime. On the flip side, though, crime tends to be somewhat “sticky.” Violence begets more violence as people seek vengeance for past wrongs. Overwhelmed police departments can’t solve cases, and impunity sets in.

Conversely, if you’re a “Blame BLM” guy, then what is the solution here? Next time we see a video of an unarmed man being strangled to death, don’t mention anything? George Floyd wasn’t killing anyone. And the officers who killed him weren’t making split-second life or death judgment calls under duress.

Whatever you think caused the rise in crime — and to whatever extent you think the Asian subset of the increased crime victimization is due to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric — the overall problem is crying out for solutions.

Some ideas to reduce crime

As I’ve now written many times, the evidence is genuinely very strong that if you have more police officers just patrolling around in high-crime areas, that reduces crime. To be clear about something — that doesn’t mean arresting more people. And it doesn’t mean stop-and-frisking them. It means literally just be present so people don’t commit crimes.

But I am tired of repeating myself on that point. What I would really like is for progressives to decide that not only is it not racist to want a reduction in the murder rate, it doesn’t even have to mean embracing the idea of increasing police patrol volumes.

Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s book “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence” was really prophetic.

He argues that the fall in urban violence was closely linked to the rise of more intensive policing. He also argues (in retrospect, correctly) that there would be a backlash to over-policing that could potentially generate a rise in crime. His call is to recognize that the basic helpful thing cops can do — monitor the situation and stop crime before it starts — can be done other ways. Better streetlights reduce crime. CCTV cameras reduce crime, especially when they are actively monitored.

Sharkey expresses optimism that instead of having cops do extra patrols, you could have civilians organized by community groups do it. He argues that private security guards are very effective — poor people just can’t afford them, but they serve as proof of concept that you could fund grassroots patrols through churches or whatever else and see less crime.

My main point is there’s a lot you can do. A final thought from Sharkey — this problem has gotten really bad for the most vulnerable members of our society.

If you care about the poor and the future of cities, you owe it to yourself and the world not to put your head in the sand about overall violent crime. Hate crimes are awful, and we need to stand with the victims. But to the extent that hate crimes are rising, that’s surely connected to the reality that violence and mayhem, in general, are increasing.