In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt contemplates an important puzzle: that, in the 1990s, violent crime in the US fell suddenly and steeply.
Levitt reviews, and finds wanting, the usual explanations. He says the drop in violent crime cannot be exhaustively explained by any one, or combination, of the following factors:
Innovative policing strategies
Increased reliance on prisons
Changes in crack and other drug markets
Aging of the population
Tougher gun control laws
Increased number of police
All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others)
Levitt has his own, now famous, account: legalized abortion diminished the population most likely to commit crime, specifically teens brought into the world by reluctant mothers. (2005:139)
I think we are still missing something. Call it the “esteem” or “Goffman” explanation.
As Levitt points out, we are talking not about crime but violent crime (2005: 121). Lesser crimes, burglary, robbery and auto-theft, for instance, have a “direct financial motivation.” Violent crimes (assault, rape, homicide) appear to have an extra-economic motivation. They damage not only the material interests of the victim, but something more. Victims of assault and rape say that they feel diminished and even humiliated, and that this immaterial loss creates injury every bit as grievous as the loss of money and possessions.
Violent crime is a crime against esteem, as much as it is a crime against property. (By “esteem,” I mean the value attacked to the individual by the individual and by others. We could also call this “face,” as Goffman did.) And it is as a crime against esteem that it is sometimes committed. This is to say that the diminishment and humiliation felt by the victim is no mere accident of the crime, but the very outcome the criminal sometimes intends.
If violent crime began to fall in the 1990s, the anthropological question is this: why was the need to commit crimes against esteem felt less urgently than before? What had changed?
To answer this question, we must answer several smaller questions. First, we must ask who would commit violent crime as a crime against esteem. I think violent crime is mostly like to come from those who have suffered attacks upon esteem of their own. Those who live in poverty are often subject to belittling stigma and stereotype. (These are “violent crimes” of an endemic, slow motion, rhetorical kind.)
When committed by this group, violent crimes may be seen to have an element of retribution and, possibly, redistribution. Victims are punished for having so much esteem when the criminal has so little. It seems to me unlikely that the criminal also hopes for redistribution. The criminal doesn’t get to “keep” the esteem he/she “takes” from a victim. (This is of course an ethnographic question that should not be answered from an armchair.) But something like redress has been accomplished. The criminal might not have more esteem, but the victim does at least have less.
What, then, has changed for those who come from poverty, that they should feel the need to commit crimes against esteem less urgently. I believe the answer to this question comes from the single most important development in musical taste of the last 30 years, the rise of the musical form variously called rap, hip hop, gangsta and here called rap.
Rap bestowed new esteem upon impoverished urban teen. As long as it remained the possession of impoverished teens, black and white, it did not change the esteem equation. But sometime in the late 1980s, it crossed over into the mainstream, black and white. Beastie Boys and Run-DMC were calculated to have cross over appeal, and the former’s Fight For Your Right entered the top ten in 1986. In 1988, Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation and NWA released Straight Outta Compton. Gangsta rap was now headed for the suburbs. And once this diffusion of musical form had taken place, the position of the impoverished teen went from scorned loser to a creature of standing, status, and credibility. So utterly did rap win the day that, with a brief but interesting interruption in the form of “alternative music,” the children of the suburbs now wanted very much to walk, talk and otherwise conduct themselves as if they came from very different socio-economic origins.
The rise of rap represented a massive transfer of esteem from the teens of the middle class suburb to those of the impoverished city. There was in short an abrupt and thoroughgoing reversing of the asymmetries. Those who once suffered esteem shortages now enjoyed whacking, great surpluses. Violent crime? To protest what exactly? To exact a revenge? To appropriate esteem? Violent crime was now an antique of another age, the dangerous preoccupation of another generation, an activity that was now just odd. I believe this is why violent crime began to drop in the early 1990s. As the suburbs began to absorb rap, the esteem economy began to tip in a new direction. Violent crime has become an increasingly pointless enterprise.
Bourois, Philippe. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York Cambridge University Press.
Levitt, Steven D. 2005. Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow.
post script: sorry this is a little rushed. relatives for dinner!