Op-Ed: Who’s behind the rise in crime? Could be Trump’s constituency: older whites

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Donald Trump is right: Crime has gotten worse recently. From 2014 to 2015, as the U.S. population increased by less than 1%, the National Center for Health Statistics found that gun deaths rose by 7%, and homicides rose 8%. The FBI likewise reported a 4% jump in violent crime, including a 10% increase in homicides.

In raw numbers, 1,500 more homicides were reported in 2015 than in 2014. Preliminary trends indicate 2016 may be even worse. Though violent crime remains much lower today than in past decades, gun killings (36,000 in 2015) remain a persistent crisis.

However, Donald Trump is not right, as he has suggested on the campaign trail and repeated in Sunday’s debate, that the chief culprits are Muslim terrorists, inner-city gangs and Latino “criminal illegal aliens” who comprise the “murderers” causing “drug problems” and “and crime like you’ve never seen.” If he needs someone to blame, he should look instead to the demographic group most likely to support him: older whites.


FBI statistics show that the number of violent crime arrests in 2015 fell by about 2,000 among teenagers and young adults under age 30 even as they rose by 7,000 among older age groups. The Feds don’t provide age-by-race breakdowns — but California does, and California may be a suitable proxy for what’s going on across the country because it’s experiencing similar overall trends.

More older white Californians are now getting arrested for drug offenses than younger people of color.

In 2015, according to statistics compiled by the California Department of Justice, violent crime in California went up 8% and homicide went up 9%. Violence arrests were down (around 700) among those under age 30 and up (around 2,600) for those over 30.

Here’s the racial-demographic data behind these increases: In 2015, murder arrests in California rose sharply among whites 30 and older (up 16%) but fell among people younger than 30 of all races (down 5%), including young people of color (also down 5%).

Violent crime, which includes murder, rape, robbery and assault, rose 4% among older whites but decreased by 2% among those under age 30, with younger African, Latino and Asian Americans showing the biggest drop (down 8%). Trends in violence rates among older Californians of color lay in between (up 3%).

A similar pattern prevailed for drug arrests. Though major reforms in drug laws have brought down arrests for all Californians, older whites showed the least decline in drug arrest rates of any demographic (down 6%, compared with a 12% decline for younger people, including a 15% decline for young people of color). Again, older nonwhites were in between (down 11%).


In a truly stunning reversal of past trends, more older white Californians are now getting arrested for drug offenses than younger people of color. And though imprisonment rates for older whites have not yet caught up with those of younger people of color, the race/age gap has narrowed astonishingly.

Over the last 25 years — even with falling crime and recent reforms that reduced California’s prison population — older whites are the only group that has shown increased levels of imprisonment, while rates for young people of color have plummeted.

In 2015, for the first time, as many whites 30 and older as younger people of color were sent to prison. These trends are also found nationally, where older whites have shown major increases in state and federal imprisonment over the last 15 years while younger ages of all races — and people of color of all ages — have shown declines.

But if Trump is getting the trends wrong, so is his rival. While Trump wrongly blames immigrants and minorities for rising troubles, Hillary Clinton (like President Obama) wrongly blames “young people, in particular” for gun violence.

In fact, the most recent figures show that Americans under 30 of all races (who make up 40% of the population) account for fewer than 30% of firearms deaths, compared with 54% for whites 30 and older (also 40% of the population). This disparity is especially remarkable given that older whites are the nation’s wealthiest demographic.


Clearly, Clinton and Trump are not going to point the finger for crime problems at older whites, their own demographic and America’s wealthiest and most powerful constituency, no matter what statistics say. Nor are major institutions and other political organizations, such as California’s lobbies promoting and opposing major gun control measures, which continue to pretend young people are the problem populations they’re vying to “save.”

These facts and times are right for American leaders to jettison the entire, deplorable tradition even the equality-preaching Obama administration has followed: demographic scapegoating. Crime, gun killings, drugs, rape, bullying, obesity, terrorism and other social crises are not the fault of young people, even if liberals find that population politically easiest to blame — nor are they the fault of whatever racial, religious or immigrant groups conservatives decide to target. They reflect individual troubles and external conditions across broad populations, not demographic characteristics.

Nor would creating a new demographic villain, aging whites, be justified. It’s 2016, and America is more diverse than ever before. We don’t need candidates recycling old prejudices and misnomers about race and age as substitutes for the reasoned, modern social policy this country’s real crises demand.

Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco.

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