Is There an “Obama Effect” on Crime?

A surprising new theory for the continuing crime decline among black Americans.

President Barack Obama

Photograph by Mandel Ngan for Getty Images.

Ever since crime started declining in American cities in the 1990s, researchers have been hunting for the reasons why. After more than a decade of research, many argued that smarter policing, more incarceration, the waning of the crack epidemic, improved home security, and legislation such as the Brady Bill had a role in cutting crime. More speculatively, some posit that an aging population, legal abortion (an argument first advanced in the Quarterly Journal of Economics Steven Levitt and later popularized in his book Freakonomics), the rise of mood-improving drugs, and, a theory that’s attracted much attention lately, laws banning lead in paint, may have contributed to the decline.

Until recently, almost all criminologists could agree on one factor: the good economy. Nothing is as taken for granted (at least by liberals) as this connection between crime and economics. The higher are employment and wages, the thinking goes, the less crime people commit—and vice versa.

But then, unexpectedly, the crime decline of the last two decades did not end with the economic collapse of 2008. On the contrary, decreases in violent crime have not just continued in many places since, according to the latest numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, but they appear to have accelerated in some cities. In the first half of 2009, homicides plummeted an astounding 67 percent over 2008 in Minneapolis, 47 percent in Seattle, 39 percent in Charlotte, 31 percent in New York, and 17 percent in Los Angeles. As surprisingly, these declines occurred in black communities, which suffer disproportionately from unemployment and stagnating wages and from crime (about half of all violent crimes in the United States involve blacks)—even as the growth in the prison population, also disproportionately black, has halted.

Experts are baffled. “Blacks in the U.S. are like the canary in the mine. Their crime rates go up faster during recessions, and go down faster in good times,” says Gary LaFree, director of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Maryland. Franklin Zimring, a U.C.-Berkeley criminologist whose new book, The City That Became Safe, explores the crime drop in New York, told me: “The crime decline of 2008 to 2010 comes at a really inconvenient time for the conventional wisdom, in two respects. One, the economy is going to hell, and two, this is the first time in forty years that we are not removing more prisoners from the streets than we’re sending back.”

So what could account for it?

One unlikely explanation that is gaining credence among experts, including some of the biggest names in the field, is a phenomenon tentatively dubbed “the Obama Effect.” Simply put, it holds that the election of the first black president has provided such collective inspiration that it has changed the thinking or behavior of would-be or one-time criminals. The effect is not yet quantifiable, but some very numbers-driven researchers believe it may exist. 

Rick Rosenfeld, the president of the American Society of Criminology, studies the relationship between consumer sentiment and crime rates, which appear to track closely. Despite the recession, Rosenfeld has found, black Americans are remarkably confident about their economic futures. In 2009, despite being in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, 39 percent of black people surveyed said they were better off than they’d been five years before, as opposed to just 20 percent who answered that question in the affirmative in 2007. In the same survey, there was a 14 percent increase among blacks who said they thought the standard of living gap between themselves and whites was diminishing, and a 9 percent increase in blacks who believed that the future for black people will be better.

“I think there’s little question the election had the effect of improving the general outlook of blacks and especially their economic outlook,” Rosenfeld told me. “Normally, blacks tend to be more pessimistic about economic prospects, even in good economic times.”

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 the continuing decline in crime, the legitimacy theory and analyses like Anderson’s have upended ideas about the economic causes of crime. “Most explanations of crime in criminology are social-structural—unemployment, divorce, etcetera,” LaFree, author of Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America, says. “But I think it’s the case that historical events may be better predictors of crime than structural elements.” LaFree pointed to the social upheavals of the 1960s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Both events took place during economic boom times, and yet both events were accompanied by increases in crime. He thinks that while it is too early to tell, Obama’s election could prove such event, but one with more beneficial effects.

But not if the economy continues to deteriorate. If that happens, the primacy of economic explanations for crime may regain ground, and something reminiscent of the 1970s may result—high unemployment, stagnant wages, and plummeting faith in government to boot. (If Obama’s and Congress’ approval ratings are any indication, the last may already be happening.) The ‘60s and ‘70s “brought not just a government crisis, but a family crisis, a business crisis—a major institutional crisis,” LaFree says. “That’s not happening. You don’t have people marching in the streets—yet. My guess is if conditions remain poor, they will start.”

But Roth wonders if dips in perceptions of government legitimacy occur not just along historical but also racial lines. He points out that in the last half-century, the black homicide rate hit its crest in the period between 1971 and 1974, when, he believes, black trust in government reached its lowest levels since WWII. But the white homicide rate peaked in 1980, “during the final year of the Carter administration, when white trust in government reached its postwar low because of accumulated anger over busing, welfare, affirmative action, the defeat in Vietnam, and the seizure of American hostages in Iran.”

Similarly, sorting through the statistics for early 2009, Roth found that while homicides declined precipitately in cities in states that went for Obama in 2008, they rose in cities of 100,000 people or more in the six states that had the largest percentage of counties to vote more heavily Republican in 2008 than 2004, i.e., the most conspicuously opposed to Obama. These include Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He adds that these states include some of the largest percentages of people who believe Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen—people, in other words, who may suddenly feel a marked absence of government legitimacy. But there is no proof that those higher homicide rates were concentrated among whites, and his theory doesn’t explain, among other things, the 26 percent decline in homicides in Birmingham during the same period, nor the increase in homicides in cities like Dallas and New Orleans, which have among the largest urban black populations in America.

Elijah Anderson believes there is an Obama effect on crime, and that the election gave black people a new sense of the future. But he also believes that a revived black civic culture had been discouraging crime, and priming the ground for an Obama, for years. He describes in The Cosmopolitan Canopy how a renewed sense of the importance of collective rectitude, even a call to atonement, had been taking hold in black communities long before 2008, citing such events as the Million Man March, which called on black men to be better citizens and fathers. Obama knows this, Anderson says, and knows how to evoke it. “He speaks to a deep vein of social conservatism among black working people by emphasizing personal responsibility,” Anderson says. “In a way, Obama is a manifestation of a tradition of black conservatism that had been buried for decades. He’s not so much of it, but he’s at least tapping into it.”  

In other words, Obama could be as much the result of an Obama effect as the cause of it.

But some criminologists believe that those like Roth and Anderson who theorize about an Obama effect are letting their joy at his election affect their research. “We project our feelings,” Franklin Zimring told me. “A lot of us never felt more wonderful in our lives than on election night in 2008. So it’s a projection technique. It’s sort of a Rorschach test for creative social scientists. Is it possible there’s on Obama effect on crime? Yes. Is there a way of testing it on American crime data? Probably not.”

Also, the latest comprehensive crime data we have are for 2009. Anecdotal evidence suggests the crime decline is continuing in cities, but since then, as we know, trust in Obama and the rest of the federal government has plummeted, especially among whites, who profess to be more discontented with Washington than at any time since crime began declining in the 1990s. Whether that discontent will translate into the kind of drop in perceptions of institutional legitimacy that characterized the ‘60s and ‘70s is yet to be seen. If the rise in homicide arrests among whites between 2008 and 2009 that accompanied the drop among blacks is an indication, this may already be happening.

Finally, there is the suddenness of an Obama effect. Singular events can have fleeting effects on crime rates. It’s believed that crime fell dramatically after the Kennedy assassination, for instance, and after 9/11, for short periods. But as far as they can discern why they change at all, experts tend to believe crime rates shift because of years-long  phenomena. So, while the recent drops are remarkable, it is also true that black and white crime rates have been converging for decades. And during that time—to name just one possible causal factor—police have slowly come to learn that they can take preventive approaches to crime. What we’re seeing now, then, may be more the dividend of long-term trends than of a single day in 2008.