Why Is Chicago’s Murder Rate Higher?

I’ve been wanting to write a brief post on this subject since I read this article, needling Chicago and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, for Chicago’s very high murder rate:

Chicago is America’s third-largest city, and is one of its three largest convention cities. It has the nation’s second busiest airport. It has highly rated cultural offerings: the Chicago Symphony, a vibrant local theater industry, great museums. But in one area Chicago has clearly staked its claim to number one.

In 2012, Chicago recorded 505 murders. That may not sound all that bad, since in some years in the past two decades the city had over 900 murders (1991, 1992, and 1994). But it looks like a terribly high number when compared to New York (which recorded 414 murders in 2012) or any of the other ten largest cities in America, because Chicago is not only the murder capital of America in terms of experiencing the most murders. It also has, by far, the highest murder rate among America’s ten largest cities.

New York has a population more than three times as large as Chicago’s population: 8.175 million according to the 2010 Census, versus 2.696 million for Chicago. In New York, the number of murders in 2012 equates to 1 in every 19,747 residents. In Chicago, the rate is 1 murder for every 5,338 residents. If 2011 population data were used, the comparison would be even starker, since New York’s population was estimated to have grown by 74,000 from 2010 to 2011, while Chicago’s grew only 11,000 in that period.

If there is one number to think about, it is this: Chicago is 3.7 times more dangerous than New York when it comes to murder, which is obviously the most serious crime with which mayors and their police forces need to be concerned.

Rather than dwelling on the manifest inadequacies of the article including its dismissive tone, let’s zero in on the key question: why is Chicago’s murder rate so high? Why is Chicago’s murder rate higher than New York’s?

Both Chicago and New York have stringent gun laws so that can’t be the problem.

I think I can explain some but not all of the difference. Chicago is blacker than New York and Cook County is less equal than New York County (all of the really rich people live outside the county). According to the Census Bureau, New York African American population is about 25% while Chicago’s African American population is around 33%. The homicide rate plus income inequality makes or a noxious mix. Where it’s particularly telling is in Los Angeles County. It has a lower murder rate than Chicago with even worse income inequality but it’s only 10% black.

Despite my raising the issue of race, my claim isn’t a racial one. The black rural homicide rate is roughly equal to the white rural homicide rate. It’s the black urban homicide rate that’s dramatically higher. My speculation is that a large, segregated black population plus urban setting plus income inequality equals high homicide rate.

It might be claimed that the War on Drugs is a critical component, too. For me to accept that I’d need to see a sharply rising homicide rate among urban African Americans after 1970 and I haven’t been able to establish it.

I’m open to other explanations. Why is Chicago’s homicide rate so high?

62 comments… add one

  • michael reynolds

    This right here?

    Affluent society would have a large income/wealth disparity, but the majority of the people would live beyond a subsistence level.

    That would apply to the Mongols, to grab an easy example. They weren’t scratch farming, they were an army on the move, with multiple horses, weapons, slaves and plunder. We don’t have the Mongol Census to go by, but there was a formula for sharing out wealth and given the vast amounts they took (while slaughtering something like 30 million people) were vast.

    But of course even that generalization is off because which Mongols? And when? The ones living large in China or the ones trying to push into Europe? Early, late? You just can’t make these sweeping moralistic generalizations, even about Rome which we know a hell of a lot better than we know the Aztecs or some of the others you rattle off. We know dick about the economics or values or virtues of the Aztecs because the only sources we have are Spaniards, and in specific Spanish priests who are rather prejudiced.

  • My black 4th grade math teacher in Dallas, Mr. Anthony Williams, said, “Only the strong at heart shall survive.”

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Values and virtues are not necessarily the same. A virtue is considered “good”. It is an ideal, but it is usually not easily attainable. A value is what is considered “worthwhile”. It is a goal, and it is attainable by most. One is striving towards virtue. Virtues are more future oriented, but values are more present oriented. A full philosophical discussion is beyond the comment section of @Dave’s blog.

    Many Christians value the ability to provide protection for their family. Presently, many of the people purchasing guns are Christians, and they are willing to kill an intruder if necessary. A Christian virtue is “turning the other cheek”. Curbing CO2 emissions is a virtue for some, but they value an overly large house with an enormous carbon footprint.

    The divergence of values and virtues occurs more often in affluent societies, and at some point, the virtues have no value. This divergence is a luxury less affluent societies cannot afford. I was not addressing this with my comment. I was addressing values being thrown out with no replacement.

    In the US, the debate over gay marriage involves throwing out traditional marriage, but marriage as a value is not being thrown out. It is being modified to remove gender, but the value is largely intact. At some point, this change will become a part of the value system of the US, and it will also be a virtue.

    Welfare takes “hard work” and replaces it with dependence. This may not be intended, but it is what occurs. Art has been abstracted to remove classical art values, and those values have been replaced with nothing. The finest human painting are now indistinguishable from elephant paintings. You are probably going to disagree on both these examples, but I do not have time for a more exhaustive list.

    In the US, most values were once shared, but today, there is a split between two factions. The differences are becoming irreconcilable. One difference between today and the Civil War era was geography.

    The Mongols were an advanced society. They were wealthy and powerful, but they mostly retained the steppe values. Under Genghis Khan, they did later begin to become more like city dwellers, and he was liberal regarding culture. The Mongols never settled into cities, and they did not found many. I do not consider them to have been affluent, but it could be debated. If they were affluent, their values were breaking down. Like Alexander, Genghis held the empire together, and it broke apart once he was gone.

    I rattled off the list to circumvent them from a case by case basis. I provided a few classifications and the characteristics of them. None of this is remotely complete, but again, this is not the place for a dissertation. Asia, India, and Scandinavia were not included, and counterexamples could be found for what I did list. Greece was composed of city-states, and Rome could be broken into the Republic and Empire. I am trying to keep things as short and concise as possible.

    Archaeology, and its various sub/cross-disciplines, has been able to make substantial developments into the workings of past societies/cultures. A garbage pit is a gold mine for an archaeologist. Archaeology is not a hard science, but it strives to be as rigorous as a hard science. The advances in the hard sciences and technology have provided archaeology with powerful tools.

    As for a moral point, there was none. My comment was about a process whereby a society declines. I am not making any moral judgement about any society’s values. I specifically used the generic term “values”, and I provided no examples. The ones above are examples, but you can create your own. If it is good or evil is beyond me.

    Life is full of processes. Some are always repeatable, but others are not. Of the ones that are not, many do repeat when similar circumstances occur.

    This is what Nate Silver was doing. His methodology is not absolute. He could have been wrong, but the chances were small. When humans are involved, the outcome is never exact. If it were the soft sciences would be hard.

  • jan

    Curbing CO2 emissions is a virtue for some, but they value an overly large house with an enormous carbon footprint.

    Sounds like an Al Gore kind of publicly spewed virtue versus his privately lived values.

    Once again, TastyBits, an admirable commentary.

  • TastyBits


    I left my original comment without any examples to avoid a debate over specific values. At OTB, I have gotten into “knock down-drag out” fights over comments I tried to keep as neutral as possible.

    In my youth, I would deliberately p*ss-off liberals, and then destroy their arguments. Conservatives were not as much fun. They would back-off once they realized the debate was not going their way. I think the liberals are not used to having their philosophical underpinnings questioned, and they cannot conceive their arguments collapsing. Conservatives can be exceedingly annoying, but liberal arrogance is unbelievable.

  • Rod Dreher has run a couple of pieces recently, including this one which talk about black-on-black violence in Baton Rouge.

    Suggested cultural influences are common all over the country.

  • I find all this very hard to discuss because I come from such a different time and place.

  • TastyBits

    @Janis Gore

    Interesting link. I think the woman’s email is fairly accurate. Matt’s comment [01-14-2013 10:41 am (CST)] is accurate, but I am not buying the lead argument. Also, the breakdown should be by neighborhood not blocks. These are not always on maps, but people familiar with the area know the boundaries.

    Many of the comments are examples of how numbers lie. The numbers indicate it is a thug vs thug problem, but it is actually a thug vs anybody who “gets in their way” problem. The numbers do not capture the person not murdered because he did not testify against a thug. The numbers do not capture the homeowner not murdered because he did not call the police to complain about the thugs dealing dope across the street. The numbers do not capture the young black male not murdered because he backs down from the thug mad dogging him.

  • N

    I have heard alot on this subject concerning the crimes within inner city black america, i’m currently writing a book on the topic and issues that has gotten us were we are in my opinion. People commonly give the reasons for the murders and crimes that plagues the black community to economic disadvantages, lack of jobs and even the warm weather. Althought some of these issues can play a small role in crime, nothing has affected the black communities like absent of black fathers. In the year MLK said his famous “I Have A Dream ” speech nearly 72% of black homes were headed by two married parents. Now that number is near 30%. This next big issue is the remaining local blacks failure to police what they created or own…..their children & community. Lack of money, jobs and high unemployment don’t kill people…LACK OF KNOWLEDGE however can enslave a whole community, race, group of people. Look at these words written by the late Dr. Carter G. Woodson……“When you can determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door; he will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”

    The sad thing is, we can’t blame another race, group or the lack of another goverment assistance program to govern our communities from the outside in…………Chicago needs to be fixed from the inside out……starting at each and every home you have a black male, the young and the old. Secondly you don’t have black young men in gangs or selling drugs if they’re not conceived at the appropriate time by the appropriate father. So you fixed the first issue then the second one will correct itself. A special word to the single black women who truly love her young son’s…………..search him, the room your letting him sleep in, his friends at your house on a daily basis. And when you find something such as a gun, drugs or anything illigal….call the police first, its better he’s doing time to think rather than dying and stink.

    This is how the black communities stood and survived in the 1930’s 40’s 50’s.

  • Thanks for weighing in, N. The points you’ve made echo those I’ve written myself. Gangs, so much a problem here in Chicago and responsible for so many of the homicides in the black community, are not a result of drugs but a consequence of much broader social pathology. The gangs and homicides will persist as long as the broader social dysfunction does.

  • bill smith

    Because they have more black people moron.. More black people equals more violence…

  • ardi

    Yeah like Dah! As Bill S said it’s because there are more blacks! Specifically young, black, punks who couldn’t hold a job at Mc Donald’s if their life depended on it! But not all are that way! In all fairness I do believe that they are often the last hired and first fired. It doesn’t take demographic or statistical anaylasis nor a genius to figure out that idle people with no jobs (regardless of the color) commit crimes!

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