Urban Wire Invest in Black Lives to Protect Black Lives: How the Public Sector Can Reduce Crime and Victimization
Storm Ervin, Susan Nembhard
Display Date

Man looks at water

Though the notion of crime in Black neighborhoods continues to dominate some discourse, public narratives often fail to highlight the disproportionate level of victimization in those same neighborhoods. Violence and the disproportionate rates of victimization in Black communities is a product of structural racism.

The Center for Victim Research documents that for the past four decades, Black people had 1.5 to 2 times greater risk of being victims of serious violence than white people. Contrary to certain narratives, evidence shows Black men are most likely to be homicide victims, and Black and Native American women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes than white women. Black women, specifically, are 2.5 times more likely than white women to be murdered by men. Most often hidden, due to white supremacy and patriarchal gender norms, is the fact Black transgender women are more likely to be murdered than transgender women of any other race.

If the public sector hopes to expand their focus from perpetration of criminal activity, which often occurs after someone has been exposed to violence, they ought to invest in creating environments with reduced risks for crime and victimization.

Particular risk factors for violent victimization, often mirroring risk factors for violent crime perpetration, include previous victimization experiences, mental health challenges, low parental education, poverty, and homelessness. In a society dominated by white supremacy, Black people are more vulnerable to such risks. Black youth experience adverse childhood experiences more than young people of other races. Though Black Americans experience mental health challenges at similar rates as the general population, they often receive inadequate care to address their illnesses. Black students are less likely than white students to have a parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to experience poverty and unemployment. Though Black people make up 13 percent of the total US population, they account for 40 percent of the estimated homeless population.

To reduce these risk factors for crime and victimization, public officials must invest adequate resources that support Black Americans’ mental health treatment, education, economic stability, and housing opportunities.

Invest in mental health treatment

Research has consistently established a connection between mental illness and crime victimization. Those with mental health problems are more likely to be targeted and become victims of crime, and those who experience victimization often suffer mental health consequences. Though Black and white people experience similar rates of mental illness, Black men and women often fail to receive the mental health care they need.

According to a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Black, Latinx, and Asian populations are less likely to use mental health services than white men and women. Black and Latinx people are also less likely than white Americans to have health insurance and receive culturally competent care (PDF). To protect against crime and victimization, the public sector must ensure Black populations have sufficient and culturally competent opportunities for mental health services and adequate health insurance coverage to access them.

Invest in education

High educational aspiration can be a protective factor against crime perpetration, while low parental education can be a risk factor. Increased investment in education and educational achievement can serve as a protective factor from violence and victimization by alleviating other risk factors.

Studies show, overall, Black, Latinx, Native, and Southeast Asian students often struggle academically, with root causes in structural racism. Increasing the quality of early childhood education centers and closing the achievement gap through evidence-based instructional and learning strategies could address these disparities and reduce Black and other nonwhite young people’s experiences with violence.

Invest in employment

A 2015 report found people without jobs were more likely to become homicide victims. Black people without jobs were 4.5 times more likely than white people to be victimized, and Black males had the highest likelihood of homicide victimization. The highest risk for homicide appeared at around nine years of unemployment.

Employment data routinely show higher rates of joblessness in Black and Latinx communities, again rooted in race-based, structural inequities. Addressing unemployment in Black communities through sustainable, meaningful job opportunities is necessary to lowering risks for victimization, including homicide.

Invest in stable housing

Housing instability makes people more susceptible to both crime perpetration and victimization experiences. Homelessness is consistently linked to a higher risk of victimization, particularly for Black and LGBTQ communities.

Research shows that when states invest in supportive housing for people at risk for crime, they are less likely to engage in crime. States and localities can follow the model of investing in supportive housing to holistically reduce violence and crime in Black neighborhoods.

Invest in Black lives to protect Black lives

Previous exposure to violence, mental health issues, lack of quality education and jobs, and housing instability—individually and collectively—predict crime perpetration and victimization. These risk factors occur at high rates in Black communities, largely due to years of structural and cultural racism. Right now and for decades to come, public officials can work to right the wrongs that continue to lead to high crime and victimization in Black neighborhoods.

A way forward is to use taxpayer dollars to invest heavily in Black communities to protect against violence and victimization. Invest in the mental health services needed to address adverse childhood experiences, including those of being Black in America. Invest in education and employment sectors to combat years of discrimination against Black people. Invest in sustainable housing, as Black people have historically been kept from purchasing homes through practices such as redlining and gentrification.

Once these investments are prioritized over other spending, then the American public can show they care to protect Black lives.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Race and equity
Tags Victims of crime Racial and ethnic disparities Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Structural racism
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Related content