Why They're All Black
We tiptoe around race and crime. Let's stomp a bit, as long as racists are underfoot.
I’m chewing on the 2021 homicide statistics in Atlanta. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the current wave of violent crime peaked in early October after things took off in May 2020. Atlanta sustained 158 murders in 2021, one more than the previous year and 59 more than 2019.
Some of the top-line statistics provide real insight into what’s been driving crime. For example, 142 of the 158 murders — 90 percent — were shooting deaths. Arguments and sudden anger account for more than a quarter of the murders with a known motive and more than half of the stabbings and beatings that lead to a death. A relatively small number — 13 murders — can be attributable to robberies.
But, in light of the racist eruption of attention drawn to Atlanta courtesy of the Buckhead cityhood movement, we should talk about crime and race — and poverty — directly.
About 92 percent of Atlanta’s murders last year were of Black people: 125 Black men (or boys) and 19 Black women (or girls). This, in a city of about 500,000 people, of which about 250,000 are Black. Three white men and three white women were killed, along with three Hispanic men and five Asian women. Four of those women lost their lives in a single event — the Asian spa shooting spree in March of last year.
That attacker, Robert Long, is the only white person who was arrested for an Atlanta murder last year. The Atlanta Police Department arrested three Hispanic men on murder charges. The rest — 101 cases with an identified suspect and an arrest or warrant — are Black: 11 women and 90 men (well … 85 men and five kids under 17.)
Almost everyone getting shot in Atlanta is Black. Almost everyone committing murder in Atlanta is Black.
None of that has the first thing to do intrinsically with being Black.
Oh, wait, but some clever soul from 4Chan or r/TheDonald or a Breitbart comment section will emerge to say “despite being only 13 percent of the population, Blacks commit 52 percent of murders” or something equally inane. It’s a copypasta meme.
It’s a meme because it’s for stupid people.
Someone can traipse into a conversation, drop the “despite only 13 percent” line and disappear in a cloud of lols in about six seconds. It takes a few minutes to unwind this idiocy, and those are minutes someone could have spent on literally anything else. It’s an abuse of good-faith argument designed to derail a conversation and waste your time.
So, I will waste some time today, for the benefit of humanity.
Correlation means one of three things: A causes B, B causes A, or some C causes both A and B. The C in this case is poverty, and specifically in this case concentrated poverty, which is a byproduct of endemic racial discrimination.
Let’s start here, with a census block group map of Atlanta, showing the concentration of Black people in each block.
This is in case you’re wondering just how segregated Atlanta’s neighborhoods still are. That block of burnt red south of Marietta Street through downtown and then south through Peoplestown and Lakewood is generally between 92 and 98 percent Black.
Now, take a look at the map of Atlanta by median income.
That great sandy swath shows median household incomes around $18,000-$24,000 a year … which is to say that half the households are making less than that, in a city with an average monthly rental price in the $1,600s. But it still doesn’t quite capture the concentration of poverty.
Try this map of Atlanta poverty from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The purple census tracts — 45 of them, with an average population of about 2,500 — show poverty rates above 30 percent, which is the Census threshold for concentrated poverty. The average in these tracts is 41 percent. The deep purple ones are in the 50 to 70 percent range. About 110,000 people live in these areas, and about 45,000 live in poverty.
And almost none of these tracts is less than 90 percent Black.
Roughly 80 percent of African-American children live in an area of concentrated poverty, compared to 6 percent of white children, which is significant given that the median age of an Atlanta murder suspect is 25.
This map rhymes with maps of concentrated poverty in other cities. Take a look at East St. Louis or Philadelphia or New Orleans, all cities that had a massive spike in violence that started with the pandemic. They have ghettos. Atlanta is no different.
The irony is that it used to be worse. Much of the rationale for knocking down Atlanta’s Section 8 apartment complexes revolved around reducing concentrated poverty. Alas, that didn’t come with affordable housing well distributed throughout middle class (read: white) neighborhoods. The destruction of Bowen Homes and the like probably did contribute to some of Atlanta’s long march down the crime rankings. But concentrated poverty didn’t disappear entirely, and the poverty rate among African-American households has remained within a 5-point margin in Atlanta for 30 years.
Poverty in Atlanta is almost entirely racialized, and poor people are heavily concentrated in the same neighborhoods. It’s one thing to say that the poverty rate in Atlanta is about 21 percent — a two-year-old number that is likely higher because of the pandemic. It’s another to note that the poverty rate of Black Atlantans is at least 30 percent, compared to about 8 percent for white Atlantans.
(I believe that figure is a touch misleading, by the way. About 100,000 people attend college at an Atlanta campus as a full-time student. Students living off-campus in the city count for poverty statistics, and would be disproportionately represented in statistics for white people living in poverty. Most college poverty is transitory and doesn’t reflect conditions coming from concentrated poverty, particularly for white students. The U.S. Census estimates that one out of 16 people it counted as impoverished in Atlanta is an off-campus college student, and that looks like about a quarter of white poverty in the city.)
It is yet another thing to note that at least 90 percent of the people living in concentrated poverty in Atlanta are Black, compared to no more than 5 percent of white people.
That last comparison is why we get the crazy ratio of violent crime and race. It’s not that Black people are more likely to commit a crime. It’s that poor people are more likely to commit a crime and Black people are far more likely to be poor and live in impoverished conditions. External conditions create crime, not an intrinsic characteristic.
Check the APD homicide map for 2021.
It’s not a perfect overlay, but you can see the pattern. About a third of homicides occurred at someone’s house and another third in the parking lot of an apartment complex or business. There’s a next step, which I will begin today: looking at the home address of each murder suspect, and seeing which ones if any qualified for a public defender. About two-thirds of murder suspects in Atlanta live in the city of Atlanta. The standard is 150 percent of federal poverty rate for income. Right now, I’d bet the answer is that at least 90 percent qualify and about 90 percent live in a high-poverty census tract.
But I’m not breaking any ground here.
The thing to keep in mind is that this concentration of Black poverty also says nothing about most people — Black or white — who are in poverty.
Racists presume everyone is as bad at math as they are. That's the part that gets to me. It's not enough to be stupid; stupidity must be imposed on others. When we're talking about violent crime, we are talking about tiny numbers of people in absolute terms.
Among white people, perhaps one in 600 people will be arrested in a year for committing a violent crime. Perhaps one in 240 Black people will be arrested.
The idea that either of these numbers has one thing to say about the morality or character of the 99+ percent of either group that are law-abiding is exactly how racism works — attributing the negative characteristics of a small subset of a population to the whole.
The question to ask is why Atlanta’s concentrated poverty — like most concentrated poverty — is so racially defined. Why are Black people so much more likely to be poor?
With its in-depth analysis of crime and demographic data, this article is one of the reasons George Chidi is doing some of the finest writing and reporting in the metro area.