The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Homicide Rates by Race, and the Mehdi Hasan Controversy


Mehdi Hasan, an MSNBC host, Tweeted:

There's some controversy about the "reader context" reaction, but I think the reaction is factually correct and Hasan was mistaken. Here's a screenshot from the FBI statistics; they naturally have the usual set of imperfections, for instance excluding the many cases where "the offender age, sex, race, and ethnicity are all reported as unknown," but my sense is that they are the best data we have:

So while the numbers of white-on-white homicides and black-on-black homicides were virtually identical, the rate of black-on-black homicide was almost 5 times the rate of white-on-white homicide (since the black population in 2019 was indeed apparently about 1/5 that of the white population).

And of course it makes sense to compare rates (numbers divided by population) rather than raw numbers in this situation: If, for instance, someone told you that the city of Jonesville had 1/5 the population of the city of Smithville, but had the same number of homicides—saying nothing about race, but just transposing the numbers to geography—your reaction would probably and rightly be "Wow, Jonesville has a vastly more serious homicide problem than Smithville; if we care about saving lives, we should focus more on figuring out what's going wrong in Jonesville and how to fix it." The same logic applies to black-on-black homicide vs. white-on-white homicide.

(It also of course makes sense to focus on intraracial homicide within each group as a fraction of the total population of the group and not as a fraction of the total homicides in the group. Black-on-black homicides in that table are about 88% of all homicides of blacks, and white-on-white homicides are about 78% of all homicides of whites; but while that's a reminder that homicides are mostly intraracial both for blacks and whites, it doesn't negate the fact that intraracial homicides victimize blacks at a much higher rate than whites.)

So it hardly seems racist to focus on black-on-black crime, if one genuinely thinks that black lives matter: If the black-on-black homicide rate isn't sharply reduced, blacks will continue to be vastly more in danger of homicide than whites. Indeed, if one just focused on the similarity in raw numbers (hey, black-on-black homicides and white-on-white homicides are all a titch under 2600 per year, so the level of the problem is pretty much the same), that would be wrongful neglect of black victims. Again, if we saw two cities with the same raw number of homicides even though one had 1/5 of the population of the other, I would hope that we'd sit up and take notice, for the benefit of the endangered residents of the smaller city (with its fivefold higher homicide rate). Saying "nothing noteworthy here, move along" would be the error.