‘Hispanic effect’ skews crime stats

PENN STATE (US) — The share of violent crimes committed by African Americans has not dropped as dramatically as previously thought and has even risen in some areas.

The rise in the U.S. Hispanic population and the sharp jump in black violent crime during the late 1980s and early 1990s may skew statistics reported by the FBI and National Crime Victimization Survey that appear to show a recent drop in black violence, says Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology and crime, law, and justice at Penn State.

Details of the study are reported in the journal Criminology.

Studies on black violent crime—involving force or the threat of force—often fail to account for the rise in the number of Hispanics in the U.S., Steffensmeier says.

Since there is no Hispanic category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and approximately 93 percent of Hispanics identify themselves, or are identified by law enforcement officers, as white, most arrests of Hispanics are added to white violent crime rates.

“The result is that the violent crime rates for whites are inflated and the black rates are deflated in these studies,” says Steffensmeier.

When the researchers adjusted for the Hispanic effect, there was little overall change in the black percentage of violent crime.

Using arrest statistics from 1980 to 2008 in California and New York, two states that include a Hispanic category, the recalculated national figures indicated that the black percentage of assault increased slightly from 42 percent to 44 percent and homicide increased from 57 percent to 65 percent. There was a small decline in robbery, from 57 percent to 54 percent.

“It is the case that violent crime rates are lower today for blacks, as they also are for other race groupings, but the black percentage of violent crime is about the same today as in 1980,” says Steffensmeier.

Studies that purport to show declines in black violent crimes may also rely on timelines that are too short to be effective.

For instance, studies that start in the late 1980s and 1990s cover a period of rapid increase in black violent crime fueled by crack cocaine use in the inner cities. The recent decrease is more likely a return to the average.

“A study that uses statistics from a short time period can lead to a regression to the mean effect,” Steffensmeier says. “Which basically means, when a trend rises quickly, it can fall just as quickly.”

Past studies suggest the improving trend in black violent crime indicates that African-Americans are experiencing better social standing in the U.S., but Steffensmeier says black progress may not be as pronounced or as broad.

“There may be a growing affluent black middle class, but at the same time, the black underclass appears to have become even more disenfranchised and more segregated from the rest of society.”

Researchers from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville contributed to the study.

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