While rates of violent crime, including murder, have been steadily declining in the United Stateas over the past ten to fifteen, the city of Philadelphia, Pa., remains a particularly dangerous place.
According to data from its own police department, Philadelphia has the highest murder rate of the nation's ten largest cities – by a wide margin.
In 2011, on a per-capita basis, Philadelphia recorded 20.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The next bloodiest city, Chicago, came in at 15.7, followed by Dallas at 10.9.
In contrast, the murder rates in New York City is 6.1, and 7.8 in Los Angeles.
Local media in Philadelphia reported that 324 people were murdered so far this year, up from 306 in 2010 and 302 the year before.
Although the number of murder victims is down from the peak of more than 500 in 1990, the rising magnitude of bloodshed have many people in the city concerned.
(However, Philadelphia police officials are quick to point out that three U.S. cities not among the ten largest – Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis – have even higher murder rates than the City of Brotherly Love.)
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told local media the obvious.
“This is a city that's got a history of violence unfortunately, he said. “We’ve got a lot of very violent people out there on the streets that need to be taken off the streets, or they will kill again.”
Interestingly, other formerly murder-prone cities, like New York City and Washington D.C., are enjoying historic lows in killings. Indeed, it is a mystery why the bloodshed is so high in Philadelphia – 50 percent more than in Chicago, and double the murder rate of Dallas.
Philadelphia has the same problems as other cities of its size – massive poverty, thriving drug trade, collapsed manufacturing base, racial tensions, etc. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Philadelphia County’s jobless rate stood at 10.9 percent as of September 2011 – high, but not significantly higher than unemployment in most other large cities.
So, why would Philadelphia's story be so much worse than other similarly troubled metropolises?
A closer examination of Philadelphia's murder data indicates that the killings overwhelmingly involve its black population. Philadelphia police data revealed that in the first half of 2011 an astounding 84 percent of homicide victims were black (as were virtually all of their killers). In 2010, 79.1 percent of murder victims were black. This proportion has remained steady over the past few years. From 2007-2010, about 79 percent of murder victims in Philadelphia were black. (These figures apparently include Hispanics of African descent, since Philadelphia police do not classify Spanish-speaking people as a separate racial classification).
However, blacks only account for about 43 percent of the city's population (as of 2010).
Indeed, a recent study by the Philadelphia Police Department paints a very grim, depressing and frightening picture of the lives of poor black people in the city.
Between 2007-2010, 91.3 percent of murder victims under the age of 18 in Philadelphia were black (almost all of whom were male). Almost all those who killed them were also young black men.
In other words, young black men are murdering their own kind at an astonishing rate. Many observers have weighed in on the unrelenting violence in Philadelphia’s black community.
Bruce Cawley, a prominent black businessman, told Reuters a few years ago: Slavery, at this late time, is no longer an acceptable excuse.”
Kenny Gamble, a record producer, similarly lamented: There are no more excuses. We need a code of conduct and a standard of behavior that will outline what's right and what's wrong in our community. We as black men have to be able to enforce it.
However, Jamira Burley, an activist, recently wrote a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which she blamed the violence in her hometown to racism and economic disadvantages.
“Until we as a society are truly ready to have a serious discussion about the state of black youth and the uneven distribution of resources; we will continue to see an alarming number of young people lose their life to the barrel of a gun, get pushed out or passed though the education system, going to sleep hungry or being forced to call prison home,” she wrote.
“Like everyone else, black youth need love, mentorship, quality education, safe environments, access to healthy foods and accessibility to resources opportunities. We have to create a world where there is equal opportunity for everyone. If we fail to do that, the poor black kid will forever be defined by his or her race or zip code.”
Indeed, answers are hard to come by. However, as the drug trade remains highly active and the economy remains depressed, Philadelphia will likely stay a killing field for young black men.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.