San Francisco More Deadly Than Oakland For African Americans
San Franciscans are justifiably concerned about the increasing numbers of homicides in the city’s African-American community. In common understanding, gritty Oakland is considered much more violent than jewel-box San Francisco, yet San Francisco's African American community has close to double the homicide rate of that in Oakland.
In San Francisco, where African-Americans comprise less than 10 percent of the 770,000 population, they make up 63 percent of the homicide victims. In Oakland, where they make up 36 percent of the 400,000 residents – a three times greater percentage than San Francisco-- African Americans comprise 77 percent of the homicide victims. Put another way, members of the most at-risk group to be homicide victims—young black males—are almost twice as likely to be murdered in San Francisco as those similarly situated in Oakland.
A number of explanations have been advanced to explain high African American homicide rates generally. Most subscribe to the structural argument that the rates are caused by environmental factors like poverty, joblessness and general mistreatment by the larger society. Others add that part of the reason for high rates is that a subculture of violence has become imbedded in some parts of the African American community. But neither of those explanations address the wide difference between the rates in San Francisco and Oakland.
Part of the reason for the disparity may have to do with simple demographics. Oakland has had a very large African American middle class dating back to the nineteenth century when Pullman workers settled at the Oakland end of the transcontinental railroad. There is a class dimension to homicide incidence, after all. It is among low income members of any group that high homicide rates can be found. It may just be that even today middle class African Americans make up a greater proportion of their community in Oakland than in San Francisco. In any case, there are indications that San Francisco’s African American middle class is declining, thus leaving a larger proportion of less advantaged community members behind.
According to a recent report issued by the state-appointed monitor for San Francisco’s public schools, Stuart Biegel, many minority families are leaving the city. School enrollment is declining at from 800 to 1000 students a year, many of whom are members of middle class minority families looking for housing they can afford. “San Francisco’s African American students have the worst test scores of any African American students in any urban area of California,” says Biegel. Can the same forces be at work with regard to criminal violence?
Some of the answer may lie in different enforcement strategies in force around the Bay. Tom Wolfe has a thuggish character in his Bonfire of the Vanities claim: “Manhattan makes it and Brooklyn takes it.” He is describing the process whereby Brooklynites went to Manhattan on the subway, suddenly appeared in mid-town where they committed robberies, and then fled quickly underground again before the police could arrive.
It is no accident that William Bratton, now Los Angeles Chief of Police, but New York Police Commissioner in the 1990s when New York crime rates were brought down dramatically, previously headed up the New York Transit Police. It was police enforcement at the Brooklyn/Manhattan subway chokepoint which helped bring about the “Guiliani Miracle,” at least as it related to Manhattan.
Closer to home, when Captain Greg Corrales took command of San Francisco’s Mission Police District in 2002, he noticed that 90 percent of drug arrestees in his district gave out-of-town home addresses. By the time he was assigned elsewhere in mid-2004, enforcement efforts by his officers--principally around his district’s BART stations--brought that percentage down to 5 percent. Interestingly, 2003 was the peak year for homicide in Oakland for the period from 1999 to the present. During that same time span, San Francisco and Oakland homicide rates rose and fell in opposite directions like buckets in a well. Could it be that East Bay enforcement programs are currently displacing the crime back to San Francisco? If that’s the case, maybe it’s time to send it back.
There are doubtless other factors at work as well. San Francisco’s high homicide rate is particularly troubling because, as was reported in December 2005, the last two members of 38 from the Big Block gang, thought to be responsible for much of the drug-connected homicide in the Bay View-Hunters point area, were finally brought to justice by the work of a joint city-federal task force. Yet the homicide rate still rose.
That really should come as no surprise. The cessation of Chicago’s Prohibition Era “Beer Wars,” during which up to 500 gangsters killed each other, did not put an end to beer running; it just meant that territorial conflicts had been temporarily resolved. The most extensive gang violence occurs when the dominant force – in this case the Big Block Gang—is removed from the equation. Then, up-and-coming gangsters fight for the now open territory. Whether that is the case here will have to be determined by someone close to the events, but the fact that it is occurring should surprise no one.
Complex problems can never be explained in terms of simple, single factors. Neither are solutions simple or singular. A number of programs are under consideration to help bring down the homicide rate. Supervisor Chris Daly announced the introduction of a charter amendment to establish a homicide prevention council of public and private officials. Mayor Newsome has shown strong personal interest in getting the problem under control. There has been much discussion about the implementation of community policing as a sort of omnibus cure-all for the problem. And a number of enforcement programs targeting high crime areas have been instituted. As yet, permanently positive results remain elusive.
As part of their ongoing search for solutions to the homicide problem, San Franciscans should also look more closely for supportable answers as to why the rates are so different between the San Francisco and Oakland. The authorities and the community over there may just be doing something right.