Root causes this, demographics that. Why is it that one can’t ever point out that violent crime in Oakland is inexcusably high without getting an almost immediate response about how we just can’t help it? Do most Oakland residents simply not care because they aren’t the ones getting shot? Do they really think the problem is so inevitable that they’re resigned to living with it, as long as they don’t have to think about it too much? Has the entire citizenry been infected with some kind of massive municipal version of Stockholm Syndrome by the City’s leadership, who spent the better part of 2008 telling us that crime was flat as if that were some kind of accomplishment?
There is nothing inherent about Oakland that means we have to dramatically outpace practically every other city in the entire country in terms of violent crime. Yes, there are poor people here. Yes, the prison system has problems. Yes, the parole system has problems. Yes, the public education system has problems. Yes, we do not have an abundance of readily available well-paying jobs that offer pensions and require no skills. All these things are true.
The thing is, they’re true in other cities too. Oakland is not so uniquely challenged as many people seem to think. Show your average middle-class Oakland resident numbers illustrating Oakland’s comparatively high crime rate, and you’ll usually get a response something along the lines of “Well, that’s not really representative of what Oakland is like versus anywhere else, because there’s really high crime in East and West Oakland, but the hills are really safe.” As if ghettos and uneven distribution of crime and wealth are unique to us! Newflash, folks. Other cities have bad neighborhoods too. Other cities have to deal with the same exodus of manufacturing jobs, the same broken prison systems, and the same failures of public education. Yet, somehow, almost none of them have a violent crime rate that’s even in the same ballpark as ours. Oakland had all the same problems in 2003, but somehow, the Oakland of 2003 had a fraction of the violent crime that the Oakland of 2007 had. See below, the number of violent crimes per 10,000 residents reported in Oakland in each of those years:
Those numbers in parentheses indicate Oakland’s average unemployment rate in each year, BTW.
I don’t want to dismiss Oakland’s challenges. Large swaths of our city are marked by highly concentrated poverty, persistent unemployment, and depressingly low educational attainment, largely due to a dysfunctional school system. As long as these factors remain in place, Oakland will have more violent crime than say, Virginia Beach. I get that. But it doesn’t have to be this bad. Really.
Let’s take a look at, say, Newark, New Jersey. I’ve never been to Newark, except for the airport, but I have watched Street Fight a bunch of times, and I gotta say, it doesn’t exactly look like the ritziest of towns. A dear friend of mine, an Oakland native, abandoned us for the East Coast two years ago. Shortly after he moved, he called me up to complain about how much he hated having to take the bus through Newark on his way to work, lamenting how desperately he missed his nightly rides on the 43. “Oh, come on. You’re exaggerating,” I insisted. “You used to complain about how unsafe your neighborhood was all the time here too.” “No, I’m serious, V,” he countered. “Newark makes East Oakland look like New Hampshire.”
Now, I have actually been to New Hampshire, and I suspect that the last part isn’t totally accurate. But what is true is that Newark is worse off than Oakland by pretty much every conceivable measure of poverty and demographic disadvantage. And if you’d like an example a little closer to home, let’s throw Inglewood, California into the mix. In Newark, 38.6% of households subsist on less than $25,000/year. In Inglewood, 30.5%. Oakland, 28.6%. What about education? 21.9% of Oakland’s adult population doesn’t have a high school diploma. That’s a lot. But it’s not as many as in Inglewood, where that figure is 29.9%, or in Newark, where it’s 35.4. And in pre-emptive response to those inevitable, yet extremely irritating comments that will use coded language to basically assert that black people cause crime (which, BTW, is hell of racist), African Americans comprise 32, 41.8, and 54.2 percent of the population in Oakland, Inglewood, and Newark, respectively. I could go on and on with more and more numbers, but I think you get the point.
Now, with pathologies like that, one would expect Newark and Inglewood to have a lot of violence. And you know what? Compared to most cities, they do. But they both have less than half the violent crime rate of Oakland. Less than half. The graph below illustrates the number of reported violent crimes per 10,000 residents for January-June 2008.
Lest you think that’s just some weird anomaly, let’s try again. Here’s the comparative rates for the full year of 2007.
I’m sorry, but there is just no way to excuse, explain, or justify this. It’s just plain too high.