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by Peter Moskos

September 13, 2009

Why do white people commit so much suicide?

One of the first things I ask in my criminal justice students is, "why do people commit crime?" Students are pretty well trained to talk about social and environmental factors. After agreeing with all that, I like to add, "I thought people committed crime because they're criminals!" Everybody laughs, but there's a basic truth there, too. People do make choices. Some make better choices than others.

This is an old debate: Free will and choice versus structural conditions. Nature versus nurture. Conservative (aka: classically liberal) versus liberal. Classical versus Positivist. Punishment versus prison. You could even go back to Old Testament versus New Testament.

So do people commit crime because they're criminals or because society made them? The wishy-washy answer, alas, is: yes.

Sociologists emphasize "root causes," the idea that racism, poverty, unemployment, poor school and housing--the social and environmental factors--cause crime. This doesn't ring true to cops and non-criminal poor. And nothing makes "root causes" seem more suspect than talking about in front of students who, at least according to the "root causes," should all be criminals but aren't.

But there is a basic truth to "root causes," especially if you replace "caused by" with "correlated with." You certainly will not be mugged on the street by a rich man (yeah, I know the boardroom is something else).

This was all inspired by Jay Livingston's post on David Brooks. Compare your beliefs about crime with your beliefs about suicide. Is suicide just a matter of choice and free will or is it caused by the "root causes" of sadness, depression, and rough times? Livingston, building on Durkheim, writes:
Explanations of individual facts (like who gets ahead and who doesn’t) often aren’t much help in explaining social facts (like the overall degree of inequality and poverty in a society).

In explaining suicide at the individual level, sadness is a pretty useful concept. People who commit suicide are, no doubt, sadder than those who don’t. The surest way not to commit suicide is to be happy, not sad. But does knowing about these individual differences help us understand why the US has a rate of suicide nearly triple that of Greece? Are Americans three times as sad as Greeks? And within the US, are whites twice as sad as blacks?
Nobody makes you kill yourself. But clearly suicide--one of the most personal, selfish, and inwardly directed choices a person can make--is influenced by social and cultural factors beyond one's control. Why is crime any different? Read the above but replace "suicide" with "violent crime" and "sadness" with "poverty" and things get deep... or at least confusing. Oh, the real world... she is complicated.

But if you believe in police and crime prevention, you really have no choice but to emphasize the power of choice and free will. It's part of the premise behind Broken Windows and the crime drop in New York: root causes matter, but because there's nothing we (as police) can do about them, we're going to focus on what police can do: order maintenance, compstat-based deployment, hot spots, outstanding warrants, situational crime prevention, anything but sitting back waiting to respond to crime after the fact.

Effective crime prevention is a bit like like a suicide barrier on a bridge: a piece of metal won't get to the root causes or make people any less sad, but it might stop them from killing themselves.


ChristMotForbud said...

I believe I have found the "root causes" of social conflict. Now if I could only get the time and some worries off my back to write a short book covering them!

With regard to the suicide thing. I should preface this with the comment I've not tried MDMA, but it seems to me, based on what I've read, there are some drugs, like MDMA that have the potential to get people out of their depression.

Until I learn more I am in-between "anyone can take it without instructions and PARTAY!" and "only by prescription from people with 15+ years training." Personally I think there are too many gatekeepers who are stopping people from being able to access things that are seriously beneficial. Like Dean Becker alludes (and outright says) on his radio show, the drug war is supposedly to keep but one teen from trying drugs, so therefore we kill and maim untold numbers of adults, (while ironically simultaneously keeping drugs in the hands of teens).

I'll probably come to the conclusion that the "overly" educated should be able to "license" regular people. so the regular people have enough knowledge and background to help the many people who can't afford expensive treatment/therapy.

But clearly suicide--one of the most personal, selfish, and inwardly directed choices a person can make…

I'm not sure the "selfish" part is an accurate understanding of how the deeply depressed feel. I don't doubt that people like Hitler and Sadaam's kids killed themselves because of their selfishness and interest at avoiding (human) justice. But many people commit suicide because they feel they've caused so much pain to others, that if they died, they will no longer be a source of pain.

PCM said...

if they died, they will no longer be a source of pain.

But they're wrong. And committing suicide just causes more pain among those who love you.

ChristMotForbud said...

So true. And someone has to clean it up!

ChristMotForbud said...

There are some people who believe in reincarnation. At least some of those people believe that trials humans go through are there for a purpose and must be dealt with; suicide merely "puts off" that particular trial for later (another life).

In other words, suicide merely puts off a hurdle that still has to be cleared. Kind of like being sent back to "Go" without collecting $200. (Old fashioned game of Life reference. :-)

Many Mansions

PCM said...

That's monopoly! Wasn't the goal in Life just to finish?

ChristMotForbud said...

Oops! You're right. Can you tell it's been a few decades since I've played? :-)

In either case I didn't really like either of those board games, I preferred carroms, Parcheesi, Scan, Balderdash, etc… :-)

Hm, I see the Many Mansions link done got broke. My fault.


Kevin Karpiak said...

I'm not sure if this is implicit in what you're trying to get at, but the discipline of sociology itself was basically founded around this very question (cf. Suicide by Emile Durkheim).

I'm no Durkheimian scholar, but I believe that his point in the book was that *even* the act that we take to be the most individual and personal, suicide, is socially conditioned... so for him there was no "free will" vs. "society"... free will *was* a social effect

Beyond that, as a non-practitioner but someone who pays attention to what occupies the hearts and minds of police officers, I find it very interesting that you find that police can't do much of anything about the "root/social" causes of behavior--their best chance is to act preventativly on the potential choices (ie free will) of individuals.

Whether that is true or not, I have no idea. I do find it interesting though, that this is exactly the opposite of how policing was conceived up through the mid 20th century--where the idea was precisely that policing helped maintain and establish a social order.

-Kevin K
Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing blog

PCM said...


Well said. You summarize Durkheim far better than I ever could.

But I don't think that modern ideas in policing and crime prevention moves away the Peelian ideals of the 1840s.

I think they move away from a 1960s perspective in which social order was seemed as a variable entirely dependent on "root causes." Durkheim on crack, if you will.

Broken Windows, for one, is based on the idea of accepting and exploiting urban/social affects on crime and using police for the purpose of aggressive order maintenance.

This might be very in line with Durkheim seeing free will as a social effect but it is very opposed to the idea that crime is caused by "root causes."

Kevin Karpiak said...


I think you're on to something there. I've called policing strategies that have emerged since the 60's (including Broken Windows as well as, paradoxically, strategies such as Community Policing--whatever that even means) "post-social policing". By that I mean that "social" considerations are no longer the main object nor goal of police work.

Of course this shift raises a whole bunch of questions, many of them still unanswered: for example, what *is* the point of policing, then? My own work focuses on how French police officers and administrators try to answer that question...

Thanks for adding us to your blog list, by the way!


ChristMotForbud said...

I love to analyze things.

I wish I could share with you all my simple list of relatively few root reasons for social conflict.

I will tease a little.

In my theory there is no one root cause for social conflict; like the Olympic symbols there is overlap among them. (This is also a benefit when it comes to addressing a real-life problem, itemizing the aspects of it, and proposing a "cure.")

Crime can arise from each one. Social conflict comes before crime, for obvious reasons, not all conflict rises (or sinks, take your pick) to the level of crime.

None of this theory requires believing in religion, but I will use a word often associated with religion: temptation.

Thus, there are some sources of social conflict and from any of those a person could be tempted to do __(insert crime here)__. How one deals with the temptation is, of course, individual. And as we all know, none of us is perfect.

But I think the real question I sense under all this is how do we prevent crime.

As someone trained in early childhood education (why I seem so plodding and simple at times :-) and now 40+ years old, I think there are two basic approaches I've seen.

The famous "nipping it in the bud" saying, in other words, establishing good habits, starting young — before "trouble" starts. The other strategy often (too often) employed is the after-the-fact cracking down and using lots of threats and fear.

Here is where our society is failing, and seriously failing. Legislators often take the rear end of the problem; addressing things after the fact and always trying to create more harsh penalties to "send a message," typically "fear us, fear power, fear authority." No offense to police, but aren't police the handmaidens of legislators? That's why you often get so little respect, because this is often not the best strategy to "fix" or really address the fundamental flaws which lead people to temptation. (Again, I do not use that in a religious sense.) In other words, cops are sent out and run around and try to address the "effects" instead of the "causes."

(At least in an official capacity, I am aware that many cops volunteer their time to help kids when they're off duty.)

Also I think many parents/care takers/guardians tend to use fear of authority (being caught) far too often as a means to control behavior, so unfortunately many people raise up kids to think in terms of cost/benefit of being caught, instead of taking other, more important issues into account.

I admit that really addressing the problem is tough to swing because we don't have a society of youngins we can raise up nice and spiffy, we have a population of teens and adults, even geriatric offenders, who are hard to teach new tricks.

So the real challenge is, how can we as a society, even using the legislators (since they are the ones hounded by the knee-jerk reactionaries, receiving stacks of letters, and ear-fulls of talk) address the issue from the front, without legislating religion/morals?

I must admit I am mostly ignorant of President Obama's track record, but it seems to me that "community" work is his forté and where the issue must be addressed. (vs. endless stacks of legislation that regular people like myself can barely read/understand.)

Even though I am totally against over-simplifying things, and constantly hate to hear life/perspectives/beliefs as though they could all be squashed down on a one-dimensional number line between "left" and "right," I think when crime is viewed as a person not taming their emotions/temptations, it can be easier to address it.

But I have to admit this realm is not one I've spent a lot of time analyzing (at least with regard to dealing with adults). Can we stop this darn drug war first? :-)