This is something I’ve thought about, but I didn’t have any data to test the theory. I’m not sold on it, but the data is interesting. Violent crime rates are down since the 2008 economic collapse, which does not follow the historic pattern. Violent crime in black neighborhoods is down sharply since Obama became president, despite the brutal downturn in the economic situation in our cities. So, what explains it?
Ohio State University’s Randolph Roth, author of the magisterial 2009 volume American Homicide, is so convinced Obama’s election has fundamentally improved black people’s outlooks, in spite of what may be their actual circumstances, he published an essay last year explaining the crime drop with the title “It’s No Mystery.” “The inauguration of the first black president and the passing of the Bush administration re-legitimized the government in the eyes of many Americans during the first few months of 2009,” he writes. “African Americans and other racial minorities, who live disproportionately in America’s cities, were more deeply affected than anyone else, and it is likely that their greater trust in the political process and their positive feelings about the new president led to lower rates of urban violence.”
Roth is tapping into a line of argument that has been gaining ground in criminology in recent years. Generally referred to as the “legitimacy” theory, it posits that the greater people’s belief in the legitimacy of social institutions and government, the greater their inclination to obey laws. Roth describes it this way: “If people believe that their government shares their values, speaks for them and acts on their behalf, they feel empowered, have greater self-respect and gain confidence in their dealings with people outside their families. When people feel that the government is antagonistic toward them and they question its legitimacy, especially on the national level, they can feel frustrated, alienated, and dishonored.”
The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of a new book on race relations, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, also agrees with the legitimacy argument, but he believes the psychological shift taking place in black people’s minds since Obama’s election is more profound. “Now we have a sense of future,” he says. “All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.”
Like I said, I am not totally convinced, but it’s hard to find a rival explanation that makes as much intuitive sense. It also helps explain the giant divide you see online between black and brown progressives on the one side and white progressives on the other. White progressives are feeling a lot less positive about American institutions at the moment, not because Obama is black but because those institutions aren’t functioning properly due to Republican extremism.