California’s divisions along racial, generational, political and geographical lines are taking on a dramatic new face.
Skyrocketing deaths, drug abuse, crime, and violence afflict older white people, particularly in areas that voted for President Donald Trump. Younger people, nonwhites, and urban dwellers show large declines.
California has a new index of danger: political environment. The implications are staggering.
Trump’s message of dangerous immigrants harbored by liberal cities resonates with older white voters.
The reality is the opposite of Trump’s depiction.
The 25 counties that voted for Trump show high and worsening rates of violent deaths and violent, drug, and property crime, while younger people and nonwhites in the 33 mostly urban counties that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton show enormous improvements in recent decades.
The state’s shift in personal risks shows that Los Angeles teenagers and young adults, once seen as the population most endangered by guns and drugs such as crack cocaine, now have death rates from shootings and illicit-drug overdoses less than one-third as high as do older whites in Republican areas.
Even more surprising, California’s uniquely detailed statistics on criminal arrests by race, age, and county show accompanying increases in serious crime, violence, and imprisonment among an older white population once thought practically immune to crime.
Consider two very different demographics: the 700,000 middle-aged whites age 40 to 69 in the 25 Republican counties including Kern, Shasta, Placer, and Lassen, versus the 1.1 million teenage youths in the 15 largest cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Diego.
For traditional crime scholars, the comparison is a slam-dunk: urban teenaged youth, over 80 percent of whom are nonwhite, obviously have vastly higher crime and violence levels—six to 10 times higher prior to 1995, than older whites.
However, over the last quarter century, violent crime has surged among older whites while it plunged among teens. By 2017, the unheard-of occurred: violent crime rates, including homicide arrest rates, among teenage youths in the state’s 15 biggest cities are now below the rate among middle-aged whites in Republican-voting counties.
Homicide arrests among teenagers in big cities plunged from 373 in 1990 to just 20 in 2017, while homicides by older whites rose.
Nonwhites still have somewhat higher rates of imprisonment than whites statewide. However, hardline anti-crime policies prevailing in conservative areas, where jailing and imprisonment rates are 50 to 60 percent higher per capita than in liberal counties, are yielding another unexpected result: Whites in Republican counties now have higher rates of imprisonment than residents of color in Democratic counties.
Social and political trends appear interrelated.
Whites become alienated as they become a minority. Over the last 25 years, California gained eight million people of color mainly first and second generation immigrants while losing 2 million whites.
Drug abuse, suicide, violence, and crime among aging whites has soared. In both Trump-voting and Clinton-voting areas, older whites with a high school diploma or less are four times more likely to suffer violent death than those with a college or advanced degree.
Far from suffering decline, older whites in California have prospered more than any other group, with rising average annual incomes approaching $100,000.
Far from bringing more mayhem, Latinos and Asians, who have the highest proportions of immigrants, are driving large declines in crime. Six in 10 Los Angeles youth have immigrant parents. That’s exactly the population with the largest reductions in crime, violence, and gun killings and lowest levels of illicit-drug mortality.
Incarceration rates would be higher for whites if not for addiction treatment and rehabilitation reforms for low-level drug and property offenders. California’s integrative, community-focused responses to drug and crime crises centered in aging whites have helped avoid the poisonous, us vs. them rhetoric.
Unfortunately, demagogues have pushed many whites to fear immigrants and the young. In reality, whites are most violently threatened in areas where racialized anger is strongest. Confronting that reality is one key to forging sane policies and a more cohesive society.
Mike Males, [email protected], is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a former professor at UC Santa Cruz. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.