The US murder rate is going up. Not good.
Despite the fact that accurately identifying the causes of fluctuations in murder rates is fraught with methodological difficulties—given the multiple, varied factors at play—right-wing politicians and media pounce on increasing crime rates as a key issue to generate voter panic; conservatives do all they can to blame the rising murder rates on the left.
Take right-wing commentator Heather MacDonald. A few years ago, she published a highly controversial book, The War on Cops. Dubbing the Black Lives Matter movement a “fraud,” castigating claims of police brutality and racist policing practices as “lies,” referring to demonstrators of color as “savages” and “thugs,” and blatantly ignoring just about every structural, historical, economic, sociological, psychological, and even political contributing causal factor in explaining crime rates, she simply blames struggling black families as the “real cause” of violence that disproportionately plagues many poor black communities.
The main thesis of her book: Murder rates are rising because of the Black-led progressive critique of police.
According to MacDonald, African Americans and their woke allies have tarnished police by publicly critiquing them. This has made police skittish and thus less likely to do their job because they fear condemnation. It has also made many people more anti-police, and such increased hostility to cops generates more unruly people, more crime, and more violence. She calls this the “Ferguson Effect:” in the wake of Black-led protest movements – such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 — cops feel worried about upsetting people and thus disengage from active law enforcement, while the “criminal element” of society subsequently feels empowered. In other words, it is not poverty or inequality that gives rise to crime and violence, nor the abundance of easily acquired guns, nor the scourge of drugs, nor a lack of affordable housing and healthcare. Rather, it is African American civil rights demonstrators. Go figure.
And when you do go and figure, you’ll see just how wrong commentators like MacDonald can be.
According to a rigorous new analysis by national think tank Third Way, the “Ferguson Effect” is bullshyte. How do we know? Because if Black civil rights demonstrators such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement – or simply the wider leftist-progressive critique of cops – cause murder rates to increase, then we would expect to see murder rates higher in epicenters of progressive wokeness and lower in epicenters of conservative “Blue Lives Matter” culture. According to MacDonald, where critiques of cops are loud and aggressive, violent crime should go up, and where cops are appreciated and supported, violent crime should go down.
But like most conservative theories, this one fails when it comes to empirical support. The fact is that murder rates are going up everywhere – but even more so in bastions of right-wing, police supporting Americans: Trump country.
According to research undertaken by Kylie Murdock and Jim Kessler, Republican-led cities and states are experiencing an increase in murder rates as much or sometimes more than Democratic-led cities and states. In 2020, homicide rates were 40% higher in states won by Donald Trump than those won by Joe Biden. Indeed, Mississippi’s murder rate was nearly 400% higher than New York, 250% higher than California, and about 120% higher than Illinois. In fact, the five states with the highest murder rates were all Trump-supporting states, with murder rates far higher than Biden-supporting New York and California.
As Murdock and Kessler conclude: “The increase in murders is not a liberal cities problem but a national problem. Murder rates are actually higher in Republican, Trump-voting states that haven’t even flirted with ideas like defunding the police. Eight of the ten most lawless, high-murder states are not only Trump-voting states, but GOP bastions for the last quarter of a century. A more accurate conclusion from the data is that Republicans do a far better job blaming others for high murder rates than actually reducing high murder rates.”
Given the suffering produced by COVID-19, the surge of Republican-led fascism seeking to topple our democracy, the takeover of the Supreme Court by theocrats, and the regressive assault on women’s rights and gay rights, the last thing this country needs is more murder. But to blame Black protesters or progressive Biden-supporters for this recent uptick in homicides is to play fast and loose with the best empirical evidence available – or rather, to simply believe the Republican-spawned fake news.