More on Violent Death in America: The Racial Divide in Suicide

This past Thursday, I blogged about Race and Violent Death in America. In that blog I showed that an examination of the interracial character of murder in America finds far more white victims of black-perpetrated homicide than the other way around, putting the lie to the perception that blacks are at special risk to white-perpetrated homicide, a false perception fueled by selected cases such as the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, where, to quote The New York Times,  “a 25-year-old Black man was chased by white residents of a South Georgia neighborhood.”

There is another phenomenon revealed by the statistics of violent deaths that, in this case generates more questions than answers concerning the racial profile in American lethal violence. This is the vast racial difference in type of violent death: whereas blacks are more likely to die at the hands of other blacks, whites are more likely to die by their own hands.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were a total of of nearly two million homicides and a total of nearly one and half million suicides in the United States between 1968 and 2021. Crucially, the ratio of homicides to suicides is not stable during this period. In the early 20th century, the homicide rate in the United States was relatively high, with rates reaching their peak in the 1970s and 1980s. However, since the 1990s, the homicide rate has generally been on a downward trend (although rising over the last decade). Meanwhile, the suicide rate has been on an upward trend since the early 2000s, and now exceeds the homicide rate. However, the racial pattern of homicides relative to suicides remains roughly stable over this period.

Keep in mind that most homicide during this period is intra-racial, meaning that blacks are more likely to murder other blacks, while whites are more likely to murder other whites (see my recent blog for statistics on this concerning the ten most violent states in America: Is It Guns?). Overall, more blacks than whites are the victims of murder, despite blacks being only around 13 percent of the population. Independent of race, most of the victims are male. It’s when we look at all violent deaths that we find this disturbing pattern: that while most blacks who die a violent are homicide victims most whites who die a violent death die by their own hand. (Note the adjustment in period from 1968 to 2016. This is because of data availability.)

Sources: US Data on Murderers by Race, Sex and Age in the 2020s. From FBI UCR 2021 (NIBRS), CDC WONDER 2022 NVSS (National Vital Statistics System), Mar 15, 2023 h/t datahazard @fentasyl

I want suggest a few possible causes and then leave further reflection of this phenomenon for future blogs. First, white suicide has increased with the emergence of transnational capital and the practice of offshoring manufacturing jobs and importing cheap labor. For workers, the loss of livelihood and economic freedom for those for whom these things matter can be emotionally devastating. Second, the life expectancy of whites is much longer than blacks due to the latter’s extraordinary frequencies of homicide. The longer one lives, the more likely their death will be at their own hands. According to various statistics, adults over the age of 65 have a higher rate of suicide compared to any other age group, with the highest rates among white males over the age of 85. (Suicide is rapidly increasing among white youth, so this pattern may change in the future.)

Whatever the explanation for this disparity, it is hard to see in this pattern any indication of white supremacy in these statistics—unless one supposes that whites are more likely to commit suicide out of an unbearable sense white guilt. If this were true, it would only further debunk the claim that America is fraught by white supremacy.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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