Back in 1999, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson made the case for what he called “the principle of infrangibility”:
Some problems, of course, are characteristic of certain groups, the result of their peculiar history, socioeconomic environment and cultural adaptation to life in this country. This is as true of urban Afro-Americans as it is of rural Anglo-Americans in Appalachia or Asians. Thus we might ask why mass murders seem exclusively the doing of young white men who often come from the middle class.
What is at issue here is the principle of infrangibility: our conception of normalcy and of what groups constitute our social body — those from whom we cannot be separated without losing our identity, so that their achievements become our own and their pathologies our failures.
We should speak not simply of black poverty but of the nation’s poverty; not the Italian-American Mafia problem but the nation’s organized crime problem; not the pathologies of privileged white teen-age boys but … of all our unloved, alienated young men.
When we compare, say, the white murder rate to the black murder rate as opposed to the black murder rate to the U.S. murder rate, the latter of which is a total that factors in the black population, we risk creating the impression that we are dealing with two separable populations.
Yet there are times when it can be useful to leave aside the principle of infrangibility, particularly when we recognize that we are not in fact dealing with separable populations, but rather to demonstrate the vulnerability of a particular population.
This brings to mind Matt Yglesias’s recent discussion of the white-on-white murder rate in the U.S., an effort to shed light on what some are calling the “fallacy” of talking about black-on-black crime. Yglesias warns that “white-on-white murder in America is out of control,” and to make his point he compares it to white-on-white homicide rates in a number of other countries:
This is not to say that white people are inherently prone to violence. Most whites, obviously, manage to get through life without murdering anyone. And there are many countries full of white people — Norway, Iceland, France, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom — where white people murder each other at a much lower rate than you see here in the United States. On the other hand, although people often see criminal behavior as a symptom of poverty, the quantity of murder committed by white people specifically in the United States casts some doubt on this. Per capita GDP is considerably higher here than in France — and the white population in America is considerably richer than the national average — and yet we have more white murderers.
While one can debate what it means for a country to be “full of white people,” it is worth noting that the white share of New Zealand’s population (74 percent) is lower than that of the United States (77.7 percent), and the non-white populations of France and Britain are quite high. Moreover, non-white individuals in these countries are, like non-white individuals in the U.S., more likely to be killed than whites. It is not clear to me how Yglesias calculated the white-on-white murder rate in these societies, but I’m happy to accept that all of them have a lower white-on-white murder rate than the United States.
But if we instead compare the rate of intentional homicides of these countries to the rate for the white population of the U.S., the white U.S. does not in fact look like a dramatic outlier. (I want to stress that I could be getting something wrong here, so please let me know if I’ve gone astray and I will revise accordingly.)
According to statistics gathered by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the 2011 intentional homicide rates per 100,000 for the countries identified by Matt are as follows: Norway (2), Iceland (1), France (1), Denmark (1), New Zealand (1), and the UK (1). The rate for the U.S. as a whole is 5. As of 2011, there were 3,172 white murder victims in the U.S., according to the FBI. The white population as a whole is 245.5 million, including whites who identify as Latinos. This yields an intentional homicide rate of 1.29, a number almost indistinguishable from those of Iceland, France, Denmark, New Zealand, and the UK and lower than the intentional homicide rate of Norway, Canada (2), Belgium (2), Israel (2), and Finland (2). In contrast, there were 2,695 black murder victims in 2011 against a 2013 black population of 41.7 million, which yields an intentional homicide rate of approximately 6.5., a rate higher than that of Kenya (6) but lower than that of Lithuania (7).
[Well, I'm glad that I stressed that I could be getting something wrong here. I used Vox's link to the FBI's single victim/single offender murder statistics to make these calculations, and I was wrong to have done so for the purposes of constructing a synthetic intentional homicide rate for U.S. whites and blacks. A more complete picture of murders finds that there were 5,825 white murder victims in the U.S. and 6,329 black murder victims. The white U.S. population thus had an intentional homicide rate of 2.37. This is considerably higher than the 2011 Canadian murder rate of 1.73, which the UN source I cited earlier rounds up to 2. The black U.S. population, meanwhile, has a far higher intentional homicide rate when we don't limit ourselves to single victim/single offender murders: it is 15.18. This is shockingly high by the standards of the affluent market democracies -- it lies between Ecuador (15) and Guyana (16).]
Yglesias expresses deep concern in his post about white violence, and I don’t begrudge him that, as his concern is obviously sincere. (It is worth noting that the number of white offenders is substantially lower than the number of white murder victims, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.) When viewed in comparative context, however, it is not obvious that white Americans are unusually violence-prone. What I find remarkable is that despite the widespread availability of firearms in the U.S., and despite a culture that is in many respects more violent than those of our European counterparts, white U.S. population appears to have had, in 2011 at least, a murder rate comparable to that of Norway and Canada. Yet it would be senseless to take comfort in this fact for the reason that Orlando Patterson identifies in his column: we shouldn’t focus on the white homicide rate so much as we should focus on the national homicide rate, which is alarmingly high, and not just by the standards of affluent market democracies. And the national homicide rate is extremely high in at least in part because we have failed to police predominantly black neighborhoods effectively.