Homicide rates in the United States rose sharply in 2015 and continued to increase, at a somewhat diminished pace, the following year.
Both the scholarly and popular narrative surrounding the homicide rise identifies tensions between African-American communities and the police as the primary culprit.
That is a plausible line of inquiry as far as it goes. But it misses a sizable component of the homicide surge: the increase in white homicide.
Between 2014 and 2016, the number of white homicide victims increased by 22 percent—not too far off the 29 percent increase in black victims (see Table below).
With the exception of the 2001 terrorist attack, white homicide has not risen at this rate since the early 1990s.
White homicide offending also spiked during the past two years.
Homicide increases of this magnitude clearly merit attention, but white homicide does not fit easily in the “Ferguson Effect” narrative of black anger and police disengagement. It’s possible that a pullback in proactive policing could have spurred crime increases among whites, but it seems wise to search for additional reasons for the white homicide rise—such as the opioid epidemic.
The skyrocketing increase in demand for heroin and synthetic opioids is disproportionately concentrated in the white population. For that reason or others, the opioid epidemic has been treated as a public health crisis rather than a criminal justice problem.
But new evidence reveals a spike in drug-related violence reminiscent of the crack cocaine era.
After falling for several years, homicides associated with narcotic drug law violations rose by 21 percent in 2015, far exceeding the increase in other felony or non-felony homicides.
Among whites, drug-related homicides grew by 16 percent between 2014 and 2015, more than three times the increase in other homicides with known circumstances.
The increase in drug-related killings should not come as a surprise.
Surging demand for heroin and synthetics attracts more sellers into the market. As the market expands, so does the violence resulting from disputes among market participants over price, purity, quantity, and other terms of exchange.
There is no reason to believe that whites would be immune to the systemic violence that almost inevitably accompanies underground commerce in prohibited substances.
To be sure, today’s drug markets are less violent than yesterday’s crack markets and, despite the recent increase, homicide rates remain well below those of the early 1990s.
Detailed city and neighborhood level studies will be needed to determine the degree to which the rise in white homicide rates has resulted from the greater involvement of whites as buyers and sellers in illicit drug markets.
At present, however, that appears to be a more likely cause of the increase in white homicide than the de-policing of white communities or white discontent with the police.
Richard Rosenfeld is a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This essay was adapted in part from: Richard Rosenfeld, Shytierra Gaston, Howard Spivak, and Seri Irazola. 2017,“Assessing and responding to the recent homicide rise in the United States.” ( NCJ 251067). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.