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Sociology & Social Research, 1985, 69 (4), 590-591.

BLACKS AND THE CRIME RATE: SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM AUSTRALIA



J.J. Ray

University of New South Wales

Can an Australian sociologist and criminologist ask his American colleagues why in their published research they so consistently skate over the importance of race? Is it that it is so obvious and well-known that it is not thought worth mentioning or is it a liberally-motivated conspiracy of silence? If the latter, it is particularly regrettable as Australia has demonstrated that there are non-repressive ways of dealing with the problem of black crime.

These thoughts are especially brought to the fore by a recent article by Jackson (1984). Entitled "Opportunity and Crime: A Function of City Size". The abstract makes not a mention of the word "race" or "black." Yet careful perusal of her basic table of results (Table 1) reveals that according to U.S. census and other official data, the percentage of blacks in a community was the best single predictor of total crime rate in that community! True, the raw correlation (.38) is not high in absolute terms but, due to difficulties in measurement, this tends to be true of most correlations in social science. As one example of such a difficulty that might have applied to Jackson's data, one must remark that in large cities with a high crime rate, much crime might go unreported because the victims have come to accept it as routine or at least inevitable whereas in a low-crime small town similar incidents might be reported with energetic indignation. Thus the official statistics which were Jackson's basic data may have been distorted from the beginning. That this is more than a possibility is suggested by Jackson's results for the single crime of murder.

Murder is surely one crime that usually is fairly reliably reported. So it is impressive that Jackson finds a correlation of no less than .68 between the percentage of blacks in the community and the rate of "non-negligent homicide." Correlations as high as .68 are of course seldom observed in the social sciences.

To a non-American, then, it would seem that Jackson has made a great discovery and yet has inexplicably ignored it. She has found the major factor in U.S. crime and yet seems supremely uninterested in doing anything about it. A less ostrich-like policy that is benevolent to both blacks and whites is however possible -- as the example of Australia shows.

Australia's black minority (the Aborigines) is relatively smaller than America's (about 1.5% of the Australian population) but it still shows the same problem of rates of incarceration that are stratospherically high by white standards. Whether fairly or unfairly, blacks get thrown into jail vastly more than whites do (per capita). Yet this causes none of the problems for the white population that it seems to cause in the United States. Australia is a lot more secure a place to live in. Most Australians don't even know what the word "mugging" means, let alone having ever experienced it, and the number of deaths per capita per annum from gunshot wounds is in Australia about 1% of the United States total. So why the difference?

Let us dismiss some possible spurious explanations first. There appears to be current in America an amusing misconception of Australia as a "frontier" society. if this were true, one might argue that Australia does so much better because they are still living in rustic simplicity -- without the vices of large cities. The reverse is of course the truth. On most criteria Australia is the world's most urbanized country -- with over 80% of its population city-dwellers. The two large cities of Sydney and Melbourne alone account for 6 million out of Australia's 15 million population. So if anybody should have urban blight, Australians should.

Another spurious explanation of the Australian advantage might be that it has stricter gun control laws. This is only very partially true. While handguns are fairly effectively prohibited in Australia, possession of other firearms is only nominally controlled. At any event, the most heavily armed society in the world is Switzerland. Virtually every adult male in Switzerland has a semi-automatic military firearm in his cupboard. Yet Switzerland has one of the world's lowest rates of gun death (Clinard, 1978). Rate of gun ownership alone cannot explain the rate of gun-related crimes.

The explanation proposed here for the Australian advantage, then, is simply that in Australia the tendency of blacks and whites to live apart is far more advanced than it is in the United States. And this is not the result of South African-style "apartheid." As in the United States, there are in Australia a wide range of governmental programs that actively favor blacks. Blacks often get for free things that whites have to pay for (e.g. legal aid and housing).

Blacks in Australia tend to live on "missions" (reservations), in "camps" on the outskirts of some country towns or in one particular suburb of some of the big cities (e.g. Redfern in Sydney). Perhaps as a legacy of past oppression, blacks seem to feel generally uncomfortable with whites so the result is that blacks interact with blacks, whites interact with whites but black-white interactions are rare. Blacks and whites live apart both geographically and socially. And it is basically the blacks themselves that want it that way. Nobody forces all Sydney blacks to live in Redfern but nearly all Sydney blacks do. This is not to say that a Sydney black would not like to live in a house in millionaires row in Wahroonga but just to say that they have a strong preference to live together and even if a house in millionaires row were in fact to be offered to them they would probably only move in if a lot of their fellow blacks moved into the neighborhood too.

And in Australia there is no government meddling to upset this process. There is no forced busing of blacks into white schools and no well-meaning attempts to locate black welfare housing in white neighborhoods. So the result is that the higher rate of crime among blacks tends to affect blacks only. Only in the small country towns where blacks and whites are both so few that they cannot really live apart (i.e. where both blacks and whites have to use the same bar, store etc.) do black-white clashes occur with much frequency. This is of course far from an ideal situation but it is surely some advance on that in the United States.

So there is something that can be done to lessen the impact of black crime on the average American. Just don't associate welfare programs aimed at blacks with forced black-white integration. If it is a normal tendency of blacks to prefer the company of blacks and whites to prefer the company of whites, it is surely authoritarian to interfere with that. The United States, when compared with Australia, seems to be evidence that such authoritarianism is not beneficial.

At this point someone will surely want to call me a racist. They will say that I am proposing not to reduce overall crime but simply to shift the incidence of crime to blacks. Why should any individual black be victimized because other blacks are violent? Is not this a racially defined notion of community guilt?

It is, of course, much easier to reply to the corollary of this question: should whites have to take a share of being victims of black crime? I am sure most ordinary white Americans would answer "no." I am sure they feel no moral obligation to be crime victims.

This is not, however, what I am arguing. As I pointed out earlier, the overall rate of serious crime (particularly gun-related crime) is much lower in Australia. Both Australian and American blacks may be characterized by high rates of criminality but the crimes are different and less serious among Australian blacks. The typical offense of an Australian black is in fact drunkenness. Australian blacks have not taken up guns. In America both sides of the racial divide are armed. In Australia they are not. How long this would last if Australia had the frictions associated with the American policy of forcing blacks and whites together is anyone's guess but it is surely food for thought.

REFERENCES

Clinard, M.B. (1978) Cities with little crime Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge U.P.

Jackson, P.I. (1984) Opportunity and crime: A function of the city size. Sociology & Social Research, 69, 172-193.



POST-PUBLICATION ADDENDUM

The printed version of this article is yet another example of the appallingly low standards of copy-editing and production that prevailed at Sociology & Social Research in the 1980s. The References section was totally omitted and the title of the article did not appear in the journal's Table of Contents. I cannot say that I am surprised at the latter but the former is simply gross from an academic point of view. There were also some very minor errata that have been fixed in this online version.




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