Science & Research

The Very Stark Numbers on Young Black Men and Gun Violence


Protestors raising their hands above their heads in mock surrender  in Ferguson, Mo.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Protestors raising their hands above their heads in mock surrender in Ferguson, Mo.

A stunning bit of data from Pew Research Center for People and the Press made the rounds on Tuesday: Some 80 percent of blacks said that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., raises important issues about race in America. Only 37 percent of whites said the same, with 47 percent saying that race was getting more attention that it deserves.

These findings are a reminder that blacks and whites continue to live in different Americas. This is particularly true when it comes to gun violence.

For most young adults, aged 20 to 24, the No. 1 cause of death is car accidents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. For black men in that age group, though, the top cause of death is gun violence; they are four times more likely to be shot and killed than they are to die in a car accident.

A young black man is nearly five times more likely to be killed by a gun than a young white man and 13 times more than an Asian American man. These numbers, dramatic as they are, actually understate the problem. If a black person is killed by a gun, it is judged a homicide 82 percent of the time. For the broad population, most gun deaths are ruled accidental or the result of suicide; only 34 percent of gun deaths are attributed to murder.

As grim as these numbers are, things have improved. The figure below represents the number of gun homicides of young men per 100,000 from 1979 to 2011.

For all other races, the gun homicide rate went up in the 1990s, though not much, and then it came back down. For young black men, it more than doubled and still hasn’t completely recovered to earlier levels.

Malcolm Gladwell recently argued in the New Yorker that many racial and ethnic groups experience a phase of violence over the years and that crime and violence ordinarily subside after a generation. That isn’t happening for young black men, he said, because the legal system has become more aggressive, sending more people to prison. That, in turn, may be prolonging the cycle of violence.

Schrager is an economist and writer in New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @AllisonSchrager.

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