The Quiet Americans

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence BY Patrick Sharkey. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

In his inaugural address as America’s forty-fifth president, Donald Trump invoked the image of a nation in crisis. From “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” to “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” his speech portrayed a landscape of squalor and misery. Returning to a favorite theme of his campaign, Trump laid the blame for much of this devastation on the “crime and gangs and drugs” that, according to him, “have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” “This American carnage,” he promised, “stops right here and stops right now.”

Coming from a man who took out an ad in the New York Times calling for the return of the death penalty during the Central Park Five case, talk of a national descent into chaos was not surprising. But the idea that the United States is in the throes of apocalyptic lawlessness is both misleading and anachronistic. For nearly thirty years, rates of violent crime have been at record lows. The country continues to reflect what the influential criminologist Franklin Zimring has called the “Great American Crime Decline”—a dramatic and sustained decrease in murders and assaults that began in the 1990s, after three straight decades of record highs.

Patrick Sharkey’s Uneasy Peace confirms, for those in doubt, that the fall in violent crime has been very real. Armed with an impressive arsenal of specialist literature and his own research, Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, strides confidently into the contentious debate over the causes of the crime decline to offer an unusually authoritative and accessible treatment of the subject. His greatest strength is his skill at rendering large and messy data sets into coherent, easily graspable narratives. Walking the reader step-by-step through years of raw numbers and interpretive scholarship, Sharkey convincingly demonstrates that the national rate of violent crime has plunged to half of what it was in the early ’90s. “Most Americans have no personal experience with violence,” writes Sharkey. “Only one out of every five American adults reports ever being physically harmed or even threatened with harm in the course of a crime.”

Cynical readers may assume that these numbers simply reflect the fact that some Americans are much safer than others. But Sharkey’s findings show that crime rates have gone down in rich and poor areas alike. In fact, he adds, “the most substantial drops in violence occurred in the most violent neighborhoods of each city.” Since the early ’90s, murder rates in LA, New York, Atlanta, and Dallas have fallen by 60 to 80 percent. In Washington, DC, once America’s infamous “murder capital,” there were 482 murders in 1991; in 2016, per year-end data released a month before Trump’s inauguration, there were 135.

What this means in concrete terms, Sharkey writes, is that “a poor, unemployed city resident in 2015 had about the same chance of being robbed, beaten up, stabbed, or shot as a well-off, high-paid urbanite in 1993.” The Americans most disproportionately vulnerable to violence—urban minorities—are the ones who have most directly benefited. In 1991, black men died on average eight years younger than white men; by 2012, as homicide rates fell, that gap had narrowed to five years. The United States is a deeply divided and unequal country, but its poorest citizens are now much less likely to be murdered in it.

Yet this progress has come at a painful cost. The dominant explanation attributes the increase in safety to intensive policing and mass incarceration. As the murder rate soared in the ’70s and ’80s, so did government spending on law enforcement and prisons. The United States now holds more people in prison, both in raw numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. Violent crime has been reduced, in other words, because we have hired an army of police and built an archipelago of carceral metropolises in order to achieve exactly that result.

Seattle police officers, 2017. Adam Cohn/Flickr.

Sharkey doesn’t dismiss this theory. He acknowledges that putting more police on the streets has lowered the crime rate, as has putting more people in jail. But he thinks this is only part of the picture. In Uneasy Peace, he argues that previous attempts to explain the decrease in violence have overlooked a significant factor: a quantifiable “change in the nature of public and private spaces.” In the early ’90s, after decades of neglect, American cities were hit by “a wave of community mobilization.” As gardens, church groups, block clubs, and community centers sprang up across the country, city streets became safer. Assessing his own research, Sharkey concludes that “in a given city with 100,000 people . . . every new organization formed to confront violence and build stronger neighborhoods led to about a 1 percent drop in violent crime and murder.”

The public conception of crime, however, has not kept pace with this transformation. “Our collective understanding of the look and feel of urban poverty was developed during the era of violent crime,” Sharkey writes. Many Americans, in other words, retain a vision of inner-city life that owes more to ’80s cop movies than external reality. Thus, rather than supporting community investment, state intervention has consistently favored aggressive policing and mass incarceration. This turn toward the abandonment and punishment of the urban poor—which began with Lyndon B. Johnson’s desertion of the Great Society in the ’60s, continued with Richard Nixon’s law-and-order policies in the ’70s, and came to fruition in Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare bills in the ’90s—is visible now in the unchecked brutality of the police, the culture-war fearmongering of Donald Trump, and the assault on civil rights by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department.

Over the past ten years, the public debate around mass incarceration has started, however slowly, to show signs of change. Michelle Alexander’s landmark The New Jim Crow (2010) has helped to fuel a wave of anticarceral activism on the left. Meanwhile, libertarians like Rand Paul and Grover Norquist (the man behind the GOP’s no-new-taxes pledge) have launched their own campaigns to curb what they deem wasteful government spending on the federal prison system. The future of criminal justice, Sharkey surmises, will be determined by how these separate movements to roll back—or end—mass incarceration converge. But because any resulting alliance would be shackled to libertarians insistent on spending cuts, he thinks it is unlikely to lead to the kind of community support that he sees as the most effective way to prevent crime.

So what would actually work? According to Sharkey, we should count on the kindness of the rich. To attract investment in the absence of government funding, he argues, cities will have to depend on private individuals acting as “community quarterbacks.” In principle, these quarterbacks could come from within a community itself. (Sharkey gives as an example the anti-violence and social-assistance patrol founded by Aboriginal Australians in Perth.) In practice, though, they are almost certain to be real-estate moguls and altruistic million- and billionaires, like Atlanta’s Tom Cousins, a developer whose work to revive the neighborhood around a neglected world-class golf course Sharkey celebrates. “One by-product of rising inequality,” he says optimistically, “is the proliferation of philanthropists who have the capacity to make investments at a scale that can transform entire communities.”Sharkey makes fewer promises for places that don’t offer a great round of golf.

Another problem with Sharkey’s vision of “community transformation” is the question of gentrification, a subject he handles gingerly. Arguing that the phenomenon is overblown, he cites research indicating that in most gentrifying areas there has been only a “slight decline” in the number of long-term residents. The inhabitants of communities undergoing demographic change are not actually at risk of losing their homes; instead, they feel threatened by “cultural displacement, the sense that the neighborhood will become unaffordable to anyone except wealthy, highly educated newcomers, and the character of the community will change.” Either way, what matters most to Sharkey is that the residents who do remain are safer. What happens to those who are forced to leave is an externality—information that does not affect the data on crime rates in a given neighborhood and can therefore be set aside.

Sharkey’s data-heavy treatment of gentrification reflects a broader methodological orientation. His research into forms of community organization that reduce crime, for instance, deliberately fails to distinguish between grassroots initiatives and private entities. From his perspective, a Mothers Against Violence group reclaiming a public park in Washington Heights is functionally equivalent to rent-a-cops hired to patrol the business-improvement district of LA’s Hollywood Boulevard. In purely numerical terms, both appear to have a similar dampening effect on the murder rate.

If you find something unsatisfying about this conclusion, or about Sharkey’s approving nods at linguist–slash–cognitive psychologist–slash–TED Talk evangelist Steven Pinker, you are not alone. Despite its considerable merits, Uneasy Peace is a reminder that technocratic experts like Sharkey maintain their own uneasy rapport with politicians, law-enforcement agencies, and the academic and corporate elites on whom they depend for attention, patronage, and prestige. What passes for radical intervention in this sphere is often just superficial tinkering that masks uncritical acceptance of the terms set by power.

In the book’s final pages, Sharkey sums up his policy prescriptions with a declaration that “as a nation, we need to fight a new, urgent war on violence.” Whatever its rhetorical value, the call for a war on violence inevitably brings to mind a long history of American wars on abstractions, from Crime to Drugs to Terror to Poverty, that have accomplished little besides cruelty and failure. But the full range of these disquieting associations is beyond Sharkey’s inquiry. The important thing is the numbers on the balance sheet—the rest is just externalities.

Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.