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Murders, Arrests and the Politics of Racial Grievance

The WashingtonPost had what could have been an interesting idea: Map more than 52,000 homicides and arrests in major American cities over the past decade. Sadly, the newspaper floundered with the data, unable to identify any meaningful trends other than the entirely predictable finding that some cities do a significantly better job of clearing its murders than others. Why that might be, other than some vague talk about the level of trust between police and inner-city populations, the Post had no clue.
Two cities were highlighted graphically in the WaPo’s analysis: Washington’s metropolitan neighbors Baltimore and Richmond. Baltimore stands out as a city dominated by “areas of impunity,” where murders go unsolved and murders are rarely caught. Richmond shines nationally as an example of a city where most murders are solved. Comparing policing practices and community attitudes in the two cities might have been instructive, but the WaPo took a different path.
There are no one-size-fits-all explanations for the variation in arrest rates across all cities, but I will nominate one factor that plays an outsized role: the politics of racial grievance.
Baltimore and Richmond are ideal test cases. Both have large populations of poor African-Americans living in highly segregated neighborhoods. Both have black-majority city councils. Both have black police chiefs and public prosecutors. Richmond has a black sheriff — I’m not sure what the equivalent position is in Baltimore, but whatever it is, I’ll wager that a black politician occupies the post. Thus, we can’t explain away the difference in arrest rates by the suggestion that, say, Richmond doesn’t have same kind of poor, inner city neighborhoods as Baltimore. Nor can we can’t blame the indifference of a white-dominated political class, as might be the case in other cities.
The difference, I submit, is political ideology. In Baltimore the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police escalated into a highly emotional and widely publicized controversy that fed into the Black Lives Matter narrative of endemic racial injustice. Egged on by the media, Baltimore’s politically progressive mayor and prosecutor appealed to the black population’s resentments and grievances and lambasted the performance of the police. The resulting polarization sowed mistrust between police and blacks. In such a toxic environment, the police enjoy little cooperation from the black population, making it exceedingly difficult to track down murderers and close cases. As a consequence, the murder rate soars.
Richmond’s African-American leaders are notable for their moderation and pragmatism. They don’t stoke racial grievances. While they clearly represent the interests of their poor constituents, their rhetoric supports the idea that “we’re all in this together.” They don’t see politics as a zero-sum game. They see prosperity as a rising tide that lifts all ships. As a consequence, the racial polarization that poisons police-community relations in Baltimore is far less of a problem in Richmond. The payoff is a much higher rate of arrests and convictions of murderers, and safer streets for law-abiding minority residents. Bottom line: By eschewing radical progressive rhetoric, Richmond’s black politicians get better results for their constituents.
(This article first ran on June 12, 2018 in Bacon’s Rebellion)
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