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Urban Violence “Disease” Dissected
by Nick Defiesta | Oct 15, 2013 10:32 am
Posted to: Higher Ed, Legal Writes
Andrew Papachristos told an international crime-fighting gathering about a cancer-like disease that targets young black males—and can’t be solved one victim at a time.
The “disease” he dissected: urban crime.
Papachristos, a Yale sociologist, has studied that disease by looking at relationships that form between people at high risk of succumbing to the disease—by getting shot. New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman has studied it firsthand by running a series of urban police departments. Papachristos and Esserman have both been involved with a new urban gang-violence initiative that draws on the relationships between at-risk young men as its foundation; in New Haven the initiative goes by the name Project Longevity.
Papachristos and Esserman joined Enrique Betancourt, former executive director of Mexico’s National Center for Crime Prevention and Citizen Participation, at a forum Monday afternoon at Yale Law School. Sponsored by the Yale World Fellows program, the discussion took a broad look at a problem, urban violence, that knows no national borders.
Papachristos and Esserman drew from their research and experience to offer a classroom of around 30 world fellows a different way to understand city crime.
Papachristos emphasized that one of the most notable facets of crime research is how little experts in the field do know. One of the few things sociologists do know, he said, is that urban violence concentrates among young black men.
The homicide rate for black men between the ages of 18-24 is nearly 20 times the national average, he said. This fact, Papachristos told the audience, shaves seven years off the average black man’s life in the U.S., a rate he called comparable to cancer. The violence is concentrated among a small subset of the population, he said—a network of people whose lives are touched by violence.
He said urban crime in general should be treated like a disease. He showed the audience a diagram of connections within a city, with people represented by dots and their relationships shown by a line connecting two dots. Dots representing victims of urban violence were marked in red on the diagram; Papachristos pointed out how red dots tended to clump together, spreading among social connections much in the same way a disease does.
“Here’s the thing: It’s not just any disease; it’s a blood-borne pathogen,” said Papachristos (pictured). “You don’t catch a bullet like you catch a cold — some people do, there are stray bullet killings… but you don’t actually get most shootings just by breathing in the air of a neighborhood.”
Understanding urban violence this way, he continued, affects how a city might choose to fight crime. He asked the audience to envision an HIV epidemic, and consider what would be most effective policy in such a case: Air-dropping condoms across a wide area? Or dealing with sex workers and needle-exchange programs?
Ultimately, Papachristos said, understanding how urban violence spreads depends on the ties between city residents, particularly criminals. That’s because crime associations — such as if “Chief Esserman and I rob a bank together,” Papachristos said — are like “sharing a needle” in the disease analogy, and are predictive of urban violence.
When Esserman spoke, he said he did so mainly to give anecdotal evidence to Papachristos’ academic findings. Cities are at war with themselves, Esserman said.
“If you could travel across America the story is almost always the same … Young man is dead. Young man is arrested or suspected. The weapon is a handgun,” said Esserman (pictured schmoozing with conference participants). “I can tell you what the professor says is true: almost always the distance between them is not much. … New Haven kills New Haven.”
Follow the presentations, Yale world fellows joined in. Henrique Salas-Römer, the former governor of the third-largest state in Venezuela, advocated a series of different approaches to solving urban violence. In Venezuela he tracked court decisions to identify corrupt judges; he also had cops meet the parents of schoolchildren.
Colombian political journalist Claudia Lopez (pictured at the top of the story), meanwhile, called into question some researchers’ emphasis on economic development as a means to solving urban crime. Drawing on evidence that most violence is the result of group dynamics, she argued that modern governments have failed to provide the public goods of self-esteem and empowerment that could prevent such violence from occurring in the first place.
Tags: Dean Esserman, community policing, violence reduction, Andrew Papchristos, Yale World Fellows, gang violence
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It’s about time this epidemic is addressed jointly by academia and the law, with a strategy implemented federally. Nothing else, so far, has worked. Good luck getting it through the toxic, xenophobic House GOO though.
Also, it’s as old as the hills. It’s the default behavior for young men in situations that lack a high level of connectedness, a chance to be economically successful and raise and support a family, and a decent trust in social bonds and institutions. Or in situations where boys are socialized mostly by males only slightly older than themselves, and are hazed into an environment where hereditary rivalries are the most important thing.
It’s the “honor culture” where young men fight over turf and women, command posses of followers, and have hair-trigger responses to any sign of “disrespect.”
You’ll find it in the Iliad, the Old Testament, and the Norse sagas; in Shakespeare (think Romeo and Juliet!), in 17th and 18th century France (the need to defend “mon honneur” is enough to fight a duel), and in the feuding clans of Scotland and the Appalachians and the “wild West.” And pretty much anywhere else you look where there isn’t a functioning rule of law and trust in institutions.
It makes for fine literature and stirring songs, but it’s not healthy for children and other living things.
Data for disease and crime can be tracked and sorted in similar ways, but epidemiological methods of looking at murder don’t make murder a disease. Murder always has been and continues to be a choice.
What a bunch of bunk. Another superficial and simplistic solution to a complex problem.
As is Black psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists haven’t researched and written extensively on this and provided a road map out. But the rest of society could care less.
robn, I’m assuming they are using the word “disease” as a metaphor, or a model, given that this phenomenon behaves in ways that, as you say, can be tracked and analyzed epidemiologically. The issue isn’t what moral element is at work here, but simply how the behavior manifests itself in patterns in society.
Many actual diseases contain an element of choice—AIDS, hepatitis, lung cancer, cyrrhosis of the liver, diabetes 2, even heart disease, all involve lifestyle choices in many of their sufferers. That’s no argument against studying them epidemiologically; indeed, the social mechanisms by which those choices are influenced are part of the phenomenon being studied, as, for example, the influence of advertising on smoking.
The problem is that for hundreds of years most black people lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, under abysmal conditions. Following World war 2 they surmised that Jim Crow was never going to change down South, so they migrated to cities like New Haven, looking for better living conditions. But they were still poor and discriminated against in the North during the 50’s and 60’s, and this led to higher crime rates for them. The hip hop culture of today reflects that these crimes have turned much more murderous than they were when Bill Cosby was growing up. And that’s a damned shame.
While I agree with much of what Gretchen Pritchard says in her first post, I am not convinced that the starting point of murder is the lack of “a functioning rule of law and trust in institutions.”
It is my contention that these acts of violence begin with a significant breakdown of a functioning home life. By this, I don’t mean simply single parent homes or even the absence of both parents.
While we must acknowledge that there are murderers who come from “intact” two parent homes, there are many people who are reared in homes that lack one parent or both, but where there are legitimate substitutes that instill in the child(ren) a deep respect for human life, including their own.
It is the absence of that basic and foundational structure and lesson, however, that begins the process that leads to dysfunctionality in human behavior, manifested by the will (and perhaps even the desire) to hurt other people.
It is important, I believe, that we trace this ultimate of all ant-social behaviors to the type of orientation that comes (or does not come) for the home in which a murderer grew up.
Like it or not, murder, like charity, begins at home.
Sam, you’ll notice I gave a whole list of factors contributing to the dysfunctional environment in which murder thrives, namely “situations that lack a high level of connectedness, a chance to be economically successful and raise and support a family, and a decent trust in social bonds and institutions.” I think the absence of fully functioning family socialization is implicit in that list—it both contributes to, and results from, all three of the factors I mentioned.
How many of you Rember the Twinkie defense which said a junk food diet of Twinkies and Coca-Cola and other other sugary food contributed to a person erratic behavior.
Traditional rule is, No justice, no peace.
Modernly it is, No job, no justice, no peace.
Get real, folks.
@ Gretchen P & SRLee
After reading your responses, I put the question to you both, then:
WHY is it happening in disproportionately in Black families then?
I submit that any discussion about this subject without examining the powerful explicit and implicit existence of racism in America and ALL of it’s consequences renders these so-called solutions useless. You cannot solve problems if you cannot identify and understand their causes.
When someone says “It all starts in the home”, it doesn’t explain WHY it happens more in particular homes. It’s a non-explanation; it lacks a deeper analysis.
(and I hear the usual “comebacks” from others on their way now- “can’t blame racism for everything”, “we all need to make our own choices” “slavery ended 150 years ago” etc, etc)
While racism is a persistent reality in the American society, I can’t see how someone else’s hatred or dislike of me would justify my shooting my brother or sister or my destroying my community.
Are there underlying issues of race that affect what is happening in urban communities? Yes. But there are some things over which we have more control than we have claimed.
Are drugs disproportionately sold, and illegal guns disproportionately available in Black communities? Yes. But that does not mean that racism forces people to turn guns on each other.
Racism is real, systemic, personal, antidotal, and sporadic. And those who help to maintain/perpetuate racism should see no relief from criticism in my perspective. But the breakdown in home life that teaches and perpetuates a fundamental respect for human life is also real and should receive no relief from criticism, either.
OF COURSE racism is a large part of it.
Racism means there are worse schools, fewer jobs, unequal law enforcement, more convictions for relatively petty crimes, and less trust of external authorities (i.e. “the Man”).
Which becomes the self-reinforcing cycle that leads to dysfunctional families, absent fathers (they’re in jail, or they skipped because they couldn’t support their children or their children’s mother[s]), a black-market economy of drugs and fenced stolen goods, gang-style vigilante justice, and therefore all the dysfunctional systems raising young men—young men being hazed into this dysfunctional culture by slightly older young men, despite the tears and distress of their mothers.
Thank you Gretchen and Samuel Ross-Lee.
Then can you answer my previous question- given your responses, why is the occurring more often in Black households? What makes your answers explain that? I’m not clear
Westville Man, does it really matter why one crime occurs more in one community than in another if we can discover the source of the behavior and with that discovery help to eradicate it?
Intra-racial crime is not unique to the African-American community. Most crime, in fact, is intra-racial, unless, of course, you consider the criminal activity that is almost exclusively associated with White Males and that affects people of every race in the country. You remember that white collar crime where they brought the economy to the brink of diaster, desabilizing both wall street and main street?
Maybe the answer to your question lies in the fact that these type of crimes, on either side, are crimes of opportunity, and all one needs is a mind bent on negative, self-aggrandizing behavior, void of a moral foundation that respects the worth of other people and the violence, perpetuated against my person or my purse, will commence.
Wow…this research and many of the comments are comically uninformed. Looking at another human being and making the choice to pull the trigger and kill is not “a disease”...metaphor or not. It is just that—a choice.
@westville man I’m not sure how the “rest of society could care less.” Your implication that racism is the cause of black-on-black crime takes the responsibility off of our youth and creates a straw man—Oh well, it’s society’s fault…so let’s just go on shooting.
Epidemic violence has only ONE solution: Education. Until our city’s parents dedicate themselves to educating their children…these CHOICES will not change.
Another great “Esserman is a genius story”, which is a novel approach to resolving the problem of gun/gang violence in New Haven. Problem is, it is not working. It is building a wonderful addition onto the Esserman portfolio/resume, which has been done once before by Esserman to escape New Haven, before the economy turned down again, and the murder rate responded, as it always has done since 1984. Yes the health of the national economy has had more of an effect on the number of murders in New Haven, versus all the intelligentsia, with their child studies, etc.
What is shameful is the lack of shame by individuals who always find a way to portray their lack of resolution in the power positions they pursue and hold, and leave the public to hang. Or in New Haven’s case, always be at risk of losing a love one to violence, or being shot or stabbed themselves, while those responsible for protecting them pat themselves on the back “for coming up with a solution”.
Before closing, it has come to my attention that the city of Waterbury, blighted and Yaleless as it might be, retains crime rates, particularly homicide rates of 6 or less since 2005. Now even 6 lives lost on the public streets of any town or city is not something to celebrate or brag about, which Waterbury never seems to do, but it would make more sense to go some 25 miles away to seek a solution to the failings of the NHPD management, then to individuals from other countries, with criminal justice systems, and cultural differences, foreign to New Haven.
Common Sense- right on time and just as I predicted…
“Education” is the answer. Who’s education? I submit both -whites & blacks. But not the education of which you speak.
SRL- To answer your initail question: YES, of course it matters. If you dont know “why”, you can’t eradicate it.
Not to completely disregard your argument but I’d rather have a few white-collar criminals in my neighborhood than murderers. In my opinion, my family is safer. But that’s just me.