How a Racist America Shaped a Modern Epidemic

A history of racialized policies, the rise of gun violence and the epidemic of homicide plaguing young, urban, African American Men

The city of New Orleans had 193 homicides in 2012; to put this into perspective this small city of just over 300,000 residents has a homicide rate that is ten times greater than the national average. 1However, similar to the rest of the country handguns represent the predominant murder modality, in New Orleans the vast majority of homicide victims are executed by handgun. New Orleans has earned the title of “The Most Murderous City in America” for six out of the past seven years (from 2006-2013) yet it is only a very specific portion of the population that is involved in these homicides. 2 Though African Americans make up only sixty percent (60%) of the population, they make up ninety-three percent (93%) of the homicide victims and ninety-four percent (94%) of the arrested suspects. Additionally, eighty- seven percent (87%) of all involved persons in New Orleans homicides are male and eighty percent (80%) are below the age of thirty (30). 3 The goal of this paper is to uncover the historical underpinnings of the modern murder epidemic with specific attention to the impact is has had on the aforementioned group: young, African American males, living in urban environments. Factors of interest are “Shock Economics”, redlining, handgun use, media portrayal, exposure to violence, and racism. Some thought will be given to early African American history and the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade, but the time period of focus will be from 1930 through 2012. The city of New Orleans will be used as a case study to exemplify the larger American epidemic.

1 City of New Orleans. (2012). City of New Orleans Comprehensive Murder Reduction Strategy. NOLA for Life. New Orleans: City of New Orleans.
2 McLaughlin, E. C. (2012, March 3). Fed up, New Orleans looks to shake Murder City title. Retrieved May 1, 2013, from CNN US:

Various explanations are available for why the incidence of violence is significantly higher in young Inner-City African American men; these range from outright racism, to poverty, to blighted neighborhoods, to violence in rap music and movies, to lack of positive role models. In “Shell Shocked”, a documentary on gun violence in New Orleans through the eyes of its youth, young people share their experiences with gun violence. A young man looks at the camera and says, "I would say a gun is way easier to get than a textbook down here; a textbook is more expensive to get to. You gotta get online and order it, you can't just walk into Walmart like that", he highlights the accessibility of firearms in the city, while simultaneously noting how normative it is to have knowledge of them. A young girl, sixteen-year-old Curissa “CeeCee” Davis, notes that guns are used as a form of protection; "Your fists are not going to protect you because you cannot punch a bullet" she flatly states. Mothers interviewed in their homes recount stories of multiple children being lost to gun violence, and a young man notes that it is not specific, people will “kill you over five dollars sometimes.” 4 These stories are personal reflections of a tragic reality in the New Orleans metro area. In a 2012 study by the Mayor’s Strategic Command to Reduce Murder it was found that in 2012 over seventy five percent, and potentially up to ninety percent of homicides in New Orleans are committed using a handgun. The following graph is from the 2012 report and details the finding of the study.

3 Seal, D. (2012). Mayors Strategic Command to Reduce Murder Annual Report. Tulane University & City of New Orleans. New Orleans: City of New Orleans.
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4 Martin, Naomi. (2013, May 2). New Orleans 'Shell Shocked' documentary examines grim reality of murder through the eyes of children. Retrieved May 5th, 2013 from The Time-Picagune: m.html

5 Seal, D. (2012). Mayors Strategic Command to Reduce Murder Annual Report. Tulane University & City of New Orleans. New Orleans: City of New Orleans.

Yet despite the varied assumptions about the cause of the problem, leadership in suffering municipalities has yet to come up with a solution. This is highlighted by the fact that the list of the Top Ten Most Murderous Cities in America has remained largely unchanged for the past ten years. 6 Despite the common acknowledgement that cities with high poverty rates, low education rates, and faltering economies are statistically more likely to have high rates of violence; neither an underlying cause, no comprehensive solution can be agreed upon. Perhaps a broader and less conventional interpretation of the data, history, and confounding factors can provide some insight into the foundation of the problem and perhaps the missing pillar needed to stabilize it.

It is always difficult to pinpoint the beginning of a story; the story of one person’s experience can be said to start the day they are born or it can be traced back to the day their parents met, or the day their furthest ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup. Similarly, depending on the story you aim to tell, the history of gun violence in young Inner-City African American men can be traced to the economical policies of the Regan administration, or the invention of gunpowder by 7th century Chinese alchemists. For the purpose of this analysis the story begins with the Trans Atlantic slave trade. Nell Irvin Painter argues a fact that most historians agree with, “the Atlantic slave trade affected tens of thousands of individuals personally and also profoundly shaped the history of the Americas”. 7 Between 1620 and 1700 over twenty-seven thousand (27,000) Africans were forcibly transported to colonial America as slave laborers; in 1990 activists coined the term Maafa, Kiswahili for “disaster”, to describe this black Holocaust. 8 This influx of what is ironically termed “free labor” drastically changed the demographics, culture, and economy of the United States, making it the wealthiest nation in the world. This wealth however, came at a heavy humanitarian price. The profits reaped by the plantation owners, slave traders, and other white businessmen were built on the backs of enslaved African Americans. By the time the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, outlawing involuntary servitude (slavery), in 1865 a legacy of racism and inequality had already been established.

6 Sauter, M. B., McIntyre, D. A., Allen, A. C., Hess, A. E., & Ne, A. E. (2012, June). The most dangerous cities in America. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from NBC News:

Free Blacks were subject to extreme cruelty even after emancipation. The Jim Crow south harbored a pastime riddled with lynching, police brutality, separatist and inequality doctrines, and provided very little improvement over slavery-era practices. During this time, the white supremacist organization the “Ku Klux Klan” functioned as a terrorist organization, essentially promoting a regime fueled by fear, and aimed to terrify black people into submission. In 1871 the “KKK” was deemed an illegal terrorist organization by the United States government. 9 

7 Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating Black Americans. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
8 Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating Black Americans. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
9 Trelease, A. (1971). White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

That same year, a firearm lobbyist and advocacy group, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was formed. Some argue that NRA was formed to uphold the gun-control standards promoted by the KKK, essentially keeping firearms out of the hands of blacks. Brandon O’Neill, a columnist for the telegraphs offers the following insight into the evolution of gun control laws in America.

Before the 1980s, Right-wingers and racists were the most vocal in demanding that the states in America should strictly circumscribe gun ownership. Where the revolutionary government of 1791 made the second amendment to the US Constitution, which insisted on the right of the citizenry to bear arms as a safeguard against tyrannical government, successive legislators and campaigners who were freaked out by the prospect of former slaves getting hold of guns called for a rethink of this fundamental liberty. So after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, when a band of black rebels shot at white slave owners and freed their slaves, the state of Tennessee altered its constitution. Where once it had guaranteed that "the freemen of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defense", post-Nat Turner it said "the free white men of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defense".

Throughout the 1800s, states passed gun-control laws that were fundamentally racist. So, panicked by the prospect of more black rebellions against white landowners, the North Carolina Supreme Court passed a statute in 1840 that said: "If any free negro, mulatto, or free person of color shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shotgun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife... he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and may be indicted therefore." 10

10 O'Neill, B. (2012, July 24th). Traditionally, racists and reactionaries demanded gun control in America. Why have Leftists now joined in? The Telegraph .

In the wake of the violence of the Jim Crow south many African Americans chose to leave in search of a better life. The Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north again shifted the demographics and culture of America.

African Americans were able to find some work, mostly domestic, labor, or in entertainment, however they were often underpaid and had few legal outlets to address inequalities. 11 Soon after the stock market crashed in October of 1929 The Great Depression began and proved disastrous Americans. Although in many ways it was worse for African Americans, the financial shift that occurred during The Great Depression provided a unique opportunity for the black working class. For the first time in American history the plight of the white working class mirrored that of their black counterparts and was the main focus in the American political arena. 12 It was during this time that blacks were able to join labor unions en masse and begin to exert political power. In the rural and urban south however, inequality seemed to increase. Jobs once marginalized to the black labor force such as domestic servants and garbage collectors were now in demand among white workers; though a quarter of the white workforce was unemployed at this time, the prospects were even grimmer for African Americans, who faced unemployment rates upward of fifty percent (50%). 13 Riots were prevalent during this time and the US government was forced to address the problem across racial lines.

11 Litwack, Leon F. (1998). Trouble in Mind. New York, New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc.
12 Boyd, Robert L. (2000, December). Survivalist entrepreneurship among urban Blacks during the Great Depression: a test of the disadvantage theory of business enterprise. Social Science Quarterly. Vol.81(4), p.972(13)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” aimed to help the impoverished southern states and loosened control of states rights in order to put American’s to work. Though African Americans had traditionally favored the Republican Party, FDR’s politics served their needs better at this time and many blacks shifted party allegiance. 14 Though many people supported this economic policy, there was one prominent economist who’s vehement opposition would shape the course of African American experience in decades to come; this man was University of Chicago economics professor, Milton Freedman. Freedman’s economic policies, later known as “Shock Economics” favored deregulation and functioned on the principle that a truly free market would self-stabilize.15 Most economists largely disregarded Freedman’s economic theory of deregulation at the time, but in the coming decades it proved a powerful political force. What made it so impactful in the American political sphere stemmed from a set of psychological experiments funded by the United States government intelligence department. These experiments were designed originally intended to aid in the interrogation of detainees. In these experiments patients were subjected to electroshock treatments and it was discovered that in a brief period of time after the shock had been administered the patient was more compliant, and more susceptible to the power of suggestion. Freedman used this same principle and applied it to the political arena. 16 In other words, the best time to implement a political agenda is when the populous is in a state of shock. This idea is key to understanding the root of the epidemic of violence in young inner-city African American men that emerged later in the 1900s and will be hashed out in detail in the discussion of racial and economic politics in the Civil Rights era.

13 Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating Black Americans. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
14 Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating Black Americans. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
15 Klein, N. (2007). Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.

Long before Freedman gained notoriety, it became evident that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not making progress at the rate it needed to. Americans, both black and white, were still struggling to get by. 17 The onset of World War II brought economic prosperity to many Americans, providing jobs and opportunity, but the Jim Crow script remained intact. African Americans were subjected in racism in the workplace, marginalization in the job market and even segregation in the armed forces. For many African Americans, the fascist regimes of Europe drew far too many parallels to the supposedly “free country” they were living in. Langston Hughes stated: “You tell me that Hitler is a mighty bad man; He must have took lessons from the Ku Klux Klan.” 18 Many blacks were disenfranchised and deliberately defied wartime pleas to conserve fabric and supplies. The Zoot Suit was popularized during this time and riots against police brutality broke out among

16 Klein, N. (2007). Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.
17 Franklin D. Roosevelt Presedantia Library and Museum. (2012). Biographies. Retrieved April 2013, from Franklin D. Roosevelt Presedantia Library and Museum:
18 Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating Black Americans. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

African Americans who felt brutalized by a country who claimed democratic values, but hypocritically allowed its most marginalized population to suffer. Yet despite the hardships, inequalities, and racism that African Americans faced from their fellow countrymen, some still wanted to fight for their country. There were over 125,000 African Americans who served overseas in WWII.19 Though many served in segregated units, others served in integrated units, side by side with white soldiers. After the end of the war many African American veterans felt as though they had finally crossed the racial barrier and would be treated as American citizens; unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The G.I. Bill, designed as both an incentive and payment to WWII veterans (known informally as “G.I.s”) was a set of benefits that included low-cost mortgages, education benefits, and low-interest business loans. 20 The benefits were available to anyone who was enlisted in WWII for at least 90 days and was not dishonorably discharged, including black servicemen. Many black veterans utilized this bill to buy a house in the suburbs and live the so-called “The American Dream”, however they were yet again marginalized; this time by a set of racist and separatist practices known as “redlining” and “block-busting”. 19 Boundless. (n.d.). Boundless. Retrieved from African Americans in World War II: 1943/social-effects-war/african-americans-in-wwii/

20 Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, The GI Bill: a new deal for veterans(2009) p 118

Red-lining is a mapping process carried out by lenders in which certain areas are deemed too high-risk to loan to, usually because they are inhabited by minorities, or are otherwise deemed “undesirable”. 21 Block-Busting is a process carried out by realtors in which properties are sold off far below their market value in neighborhoods where people of color have moved in, it is predicated by the fear instilled in white home owners that they are no longer safe when they have African American neighbors. 22 The combination of these two processes made it essentially impossible for blacks to own homes; African Americans were “block-busted” and thus could only move into certain neighborhoods, and because those same neighborhoods were also “red-lined” they would not be given loans to buy property there. Many blacks were forced to rent from white owners, but since many suburbs prohibited renting to “non-Caucasians” blacks were limited to the same red-lined neighborhoods that they were denied loans for. The result of this process was the creation of predominantly black neighborhoods in the least desirable geographic locations, usually central cities. 23

This segregation only increased racial tensions after WWII. Feeling more empowered, and more entitled to the rights they deserved African Americans became more emboldened as activists. Rioting and protests became the norm, racism was used as a scapegoat, and despite FDR’s resounding wartime quote “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”, White America became a culture of fear. 

21 Squires, G.(2011). Redlining To Reinvestment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Retrieved May 6, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
22 Squires, G.(2011). Redlining To Reinvestment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Retrieved May 6, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
23 : Darwin Bond Graham (2007): The New Orleans that Race Built: Racism, Disaster, and Urban Spatial Relationships, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 9:1, 4-18.

In the years following the Second World War, Americans fled to the suburbs and purchased a quarter of a billion (250,000,000) firearms. 24 Because black people now were “quarantined” into specifically delineated neighborhoods they were more easily targeted by racial violence. Shootings, arson, and vandalism by whites became commonplace in these newly formed enclaves, and more often than not, police ignored the area entirely. In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm recounts a story of his father shooting two men who had broken in and lit his house on fire, only to be arrested the following day for the shooting. The firefighters never came to the house, and the arsonists went unpunished. 25 With the influx of weaponry into civilian hands, persistence of racist violence, distrust of the government, and the rising police brutality, African Americans sought safety and began to purchase weapons of their own. On the following pages two maps are displayed, the first shows the red-lining of New Orleans in the 1940s, the second map shows, this paper will argue, the implications of red-lining as it exists in 2012.

24 Moore, Michael. (2002) Bowling for Columbine.
25 Marable, Manning. (2011, March 3) Malcolmology 101, #1: The Lansing Fire. Malcolm X a Life of Reinvention.

The following map depicts a “security map” or red-lined version of the city of New Orleans as produced by Home Ownership Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the 1940s. 26

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26 Winling, LaDale. (2012) Digital HOLC Maps. Urban Oasis: Research Projects.
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27 The key at the bottom of the map delimitates the following
This map of violent crime in New Orleans circa 2012, more than 60 years after the implementation of redlining, aligns perfectly with the ghettos produced by post WWII lending practices.


28 The legend on the map reads Green = “Good” Blue = “Still Desirable” Yellow = “Definitely Declining” Red = “Hazardous”
29 Map created by author, 2013.

This could be seen as anecdotal, but the trend holds true for Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburg as well; all cities which continue to rank as some of the most violent cities in America. It seems that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote still holds true, there may have been nothing to fear but fear itself, but the unwarranted fear spawned by racism created a very dangerous reality.

The continuing uprisings over racial inequality in the United States were occurring at an overall tumultuous time in the history of the Western World. The Cold War, which lasted over forty years caused massive political uprisings and often worked simultaneously to exasperate and overshadow domestic problems. In maintaining it’s persona as a protector of the weak, the United States launched unprecedented military campaigns on multiple fronts. 30The plight of urban African Americans, though significant, was largely ignored on the grand political scale. The beginning of the Nixon administration brought an added layer of complexity to the growing problem of urban violence. Unlike the economic policies supported by the Roosevelt Administration, Nixon’s camp supported deregulation, the same principles brought to light by the work of Milton Freedman.

The Shock Economics theory, which Freedman promoted, only worked if there was a “shock” to the populous. Something had to happen in order to make people afraid. For a population that was living with the omnipresent fear of an atomic bomb, a shock would be difficult to accomplish. Creating an actual threat would have been nearly impossible, but Roosevelt’s quote “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” provided a solution: the enemy is irrelevant; the actual threat is fear itself. And that fear was placed on the back of urban backs.

30 Overy, Richard; Wheatcroft, Andrew (1999). The Road to War (Revised and updated ed.). London: Penguin. pp. 328–330.

The rise of Blaxploitation films in the early 1970’s is not causal to the shift in economic strategy; rather it coincided with the political moment of change and provided an unlikely scapegoat. The portrayal of urban blacks as masculine, sexually promiscuous and aggressive, prone to violence, and poor, provided fuel for the fire. Though black activists denunciated this type of cinema as detrimental to the progress of African Americans, young, urban blacks were the main consumers of these films. 31 Films such as “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, which propagated these stereotypes, were popular among both black and white audiences. Though their main purpose was not a political one they set a cultural tone for the expectations of black behavior and the Nixon Administration was able to exploit this cultural phenomenon into fear to further its economic agenda of deregulation. With the focus of the American people on the dangers of impoverished urban blacks, economic policies promising to build the domestic economy, provide jobs, and stop “handouts” went largely unquestioned and passed with ease. 32

Not only did Freedman’s Shock Economics exploit urban black men, it also served to pigeonhole them into a media stereotype, and promoted the exact behavior that it was falsely founded on. Deregulation proved successful for the wealthiest Americans, but for middle and lower class Americans the income gap became even larger. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In New Orleans the redlined neighborhoods of the 1940’s remained largely populated by black low- income renters through the 1980’s, and into the twenty first century. 33 The faltering economy and fear of urban blacks, both caused largely by the events in the early 1970’s confounded to create disproportionately high unemployment rates in the red-lined ghettos.

31 Guerrero, Ed. (1993) Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
32 Niskanen, William A. (2007). "Reaganomics". The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Many of these urban black men, faced with little opportunity and even less hope, sought alternate forms of income, if they had the talent they tried rap or athletics, otherwise it took the form of pimping, selling drugs, or larceny. The 1980’s were infamous for “gangsta rappers” who promoted “hustling”, violence and drug use, specifically crack cocaine. 34

The children born in this decade are one’s deemed responsible for the murderous trends beginning in early 2000, yet they are the product of a legacy of violence. Youth exposed to gun violence are statistically much more likely to become violent later in life if they are not provided with adequate psychological treatment.35

33 Darwin Bond Graham (2007). The New Orleans that Race Built: Racism, Disaster, and Urban Spatial Relationships, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 9:1, 4-18.
34 Rose, Tricia. (2008, December). The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop- And Why it Matters. New York, New York: Basic Books.
35 Esbensen, Finn-Aage. (2010) Youth Violence: sex and race differences in offending, victimization and gang membership. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.

Unfortunately, in New Orleans many of these youth will not have a chance to experience a time “later in life”; statistically speaking a child in New Orleans was more likely to die from gunfire in 2010 than was a soldier in the United States army fighting in Afghanistan. 36 Exposure to gun violence in New Orleans is rampant. Of the 193 documented homicides in New Orleans in 2012, not one fell further than a mile from a K-12 school.

36 Martin, Michel. (2012, May 12) Understanding New Orleans’ Murder Epidemic. National Public Radio. murder-epidemic

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The map below depicts all of the New Orleans homicides in 2012 as red triangles and all of the zones of impact. Schools within the impact zone are colored dark red; schools outside of the impact zone are colored green. Note the very small number of green icons on the map.


The combination of factors stemming from slavery, have made a profound and lasting impact on the lived experience of African American people. It is clear that a combination of factors have shaped the circumstances that young African American men living in New Orleans, and other crime riddled cities, are born into,

37 Map created by author, 2013.

but less clear as to how to fix them. The process of red-lining post WWII has segregated communities; it made pockets of African Americans easy targets for white supremacists to wreak havoc upon. As a result blacks purchased guns to protect themselves. Deregulation exacerbated negative stereotypes of blacks, causing a wave of fear across the country. Americans purchased quarter billion firearms. Deregulation also increased the income gap and left these same neighborhoods impoverished and uneducated, but this time with ammunition. In an attempt to get out of the ghettos young African American men became rappers, a persona that came to be idolized by urban youth, who grew to perpetuate the stereotype. Young African American men who are coming of age in the 2010s have grown up in circumstances practically programmed to fail them. Just like the shocks performed in the 1951 mental institutions left patients confused, defensive, and afraid- the shocks to the American people, especially to African American people, have created the epidemic of gun violence that plagues an already marginalized group.