It is the poor who pay the price (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

January 11, 2022   5 mins

Mahmood Ansari, a Pakistani immigrant who came to the United States four decades ago, used to own City Souvenirs along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One night in April 2021, he was working late when a 12-year-old boy with a knife and 14-year-old girl decided to rob the store. After an altercation, Ansari collapsed and later died.

Following his death, I interviewed one of Ansari’s friends, who said that small business owners along the Boardwalk had spent weeks begging for more police protection to no avail. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time reporting on violent crime in America has heard a version of this story. Contrary to the claims of “police abolitionists”, residents of poor communities often want more and better policing.

This is partly because they happen to live under a far greater threat of violent crime than other communities do: organised criminal networks have a much easier time taking root in low-income neighbourhoods than anywhere else. But this also because residents of low-income communities don’t have nearly as many resources to defend themselves as upper-income communities do.

If Ansari had been rich, he could have simply hired private security to protect himself and his family business. But most Americans aren’t wealthy enough to do that — and, according to a recent paper published in the American Journal of Public Health this inequality is getting worse.

The authors examined violent crime across 13 cities in the United States between March and July in the years 2018, 2019, and 2020. They found that not only was violence much higher in poorer neighbourhoods, but that the gap between low-income and high-income areas in the prevalence of gun violence, aggravated assault, and homicide grew between 2019 and 2020.

One way to address this phenomenon would be to refer to it as “violence inequality”. Just as we track inequality on axes like income, wealth, and health care, we should acknowledge and measure the gap in public safety between the most and least dangerous neighbourhoods.

Violence inequality exists virtually everywhere in the United States, but it is particularly dramatic in some areas. The Chicago Sun Times recently analysed violent crime data across the city, describing what it calls the “safety gap”. The article notes that West Garfield Park, a predominantly black neighbourhood located in the West Side of Chicago, “has experienced a per capita rate of shootings nearly 20 times higher than downtown”. The gap in homicide rates is even more jaw-dropping. In 2021 so far, “the murder rate in the seven most dangerous police districts rose to a three-decade high of nearly 100 homicides per 100,000 residents — 30 times higher than the rate in the safest seven districts, where the rate fell to fewer than four per 100,000.”

Put differently, poor and minority neighbourhoods are reverting to historically high rates of violent crime at the same time as affluent white areas are becoming safer. The gaps are even worse now than they were in the early Nineties, long considered the nadir of America’s violent-crime problem. As criminologist Aaron Chalfin recently noted, in 1991, the least-safe communities in Chicago had rates of gun violence 13 times higher than those of the safest communities; in 2020, gun violence in the least-safe neighbourhoods was 25 times higher.

Violence inequality appears particularly pronounced when you break down the statistics by race. Homicide has long been one of the the leading causes of death for African American young men, topping unintentional injuries, suicide, and heart disease. The Violence Policy Center estimates that the ‘black homicide victimisation rate’ is six times as high as the overall ‘white homicide victimisation rate’. And yet this form of inequality is barely mentioned by the media, despite their obsession with nearly every other type of racial disparity. Why is that?

One explanation is that ordinary neighbourhood violence doesn’t fit neatly into the prevailing narrative, in which the primary problems faced by minorities are the result of systemic racism and white supremacy. Outside of the conservative media, it’s practically taboo to discuss the levels of violence that exist in parts of the United States without lengthy throat-clearing about how the real culprit is racism, capitalism or the police.

But that’s not the way people who live in these communities describe their own lives. Last summer, as progressive activists waged a sustained campaign to delegitimise the police, Gallup polling found that most African Americans wanted to either maintain current levels of police presence in their communities or expand it.

Still, the fact that addressing violence inequality is one of the most important things that the Democratic Party could do for underprivileged people must be a bitter pill for progressives to swallow (and it is almost certainly the Democratic Party’s job, as the GOP doesn’t look like winning elections in violence-plagued cities anytime soon). Addressing it would almost certainly involve more policing and tougher sentencing for people who have committed violent crimes, many of whom will likely be minorities. This would cut against the progressive project of ending “mass incarceration” and promoting alternatives to policing, and would no doubt feel to many progressives like doubling down on a racist and authoritarian system.

But tackling violence inequality can bring meaningful change to the lives of the people progressives say they care the most about. A March 2019 study published in Demography soberly noted that while homicide remains a leading cause of death for young black men, the dramatic decline in homicide rates that started in the Nineties “led to a 0.80-year increase in life expectancy at birth for African American males, and reduced years of potential life lost by 1,156 years for every 100,000 African American males”. According to the study, the drop in homicide accounted for “17% of the reduction in the life expectancy gap between white and African American males” between 1991 and 2014. In other words, tackling violent crime saved a lot of black lives.

The main obstacle to Democrats getting tough on crime is political. Much of the national media remains fixated on the drawbacks of incarceration and policing; influential political donors are now spending huge amounts of money to elect prosecutors who promise softer sentencing. Joe Biden may have written the 1994 crime bill, but he barely talks about the historic increase in homicides that took place in 2020, perhaps out of fear of alienating his base and playing into the hands of Republicans.

Yet there are signs that political reality is changing. During the November elections, voters in Buffalo, New York rejected the self-described police abolitionist who won the Democratic primary for mayor, voting instead for the incumbent mayor, who was forced to run as a write-in candidate. Similarly, voters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ground zero for much of 2020’s police reform movement, shot down a referendum that would have abolished and replaced their police department. The mayor-elect of New York City is a former NYPD officer who campaigned on getting tougher on crime.

And in San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in America, Mayor London Breed recently struck a different tone following a series of high-profile crimes. “It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it come to an end,” she said. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”

It is too early to say whether these developments represent a turning point in policy. But one thing is clear: it’s almost impossible to address a problem we can’t even admit exists. Those who profess to care about the disadvantaged should acknowledge that violence inequality is a deep and growing problem. We shouldn’t forget those Americans who fall asleep to the sound of gunfire.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who has worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress.