BOEHLE: Our beliefs about urban crime are wrong

We should resist using biased crime statistics to shape our perception of cities.
Graphic depicting the Nashville skyline behind caution tape (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez).
Graphic depicting the Nashville skyline behind caution tape (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez).
Lexie Perez

Whether you’re moving to college, looking for a post-graduation job or relocating with your family, it’s almost impossible to avoid warnings like “St. Louis is so dangerous!” or “NYC is crime-ridden!” 

In a country with an urbanization rate of 83%, it’s no surprise that crime exists in our cities. However, the manipulation of crime data — which is often driven by prejudice and political agendas — paints an unrealistic and harmful image of our cities as crime-ridden.

For Vanderbilt students, the stereotypes of urban crime are more than distant narratives. They shape how we perceive Nashville and our university. Misconceptions about crime influence our choices — such as our decision to visit downtown Nashville or find an off-campus apartment — and perpetuate harmful biases. 

You’ve probably heard a right-wing pundit on social media tell you how bad Democrats are at protecting cities, but data shows that Republican-controlled cities don’t fare any better. The narrative that blue cities and states are riddled with crime while red states are bastions of safety and security is as harmful as it is inaccurate. A report by the centrist think tank Third Way shows a 20-year trend of the “red state murder gap.” States that predominantly supported former President Donald Trump in 2020 had, on average, higher murder rates than states that went to President Joe Biden. This phenomenon challenges the idea that Democratic leadership is solely to blame for homicides and crime. 

For decades, an “anti-urban” sentiment has underscored American political discourse. This sentiment, in part, dictates the conversation on crime in cities. Historically, the heterogeneity of cities has caused those who prefer to be surrounded by others like them to live in small towns or rural areas. This pattern has led to racial homogeneity and dominance of white political leaders in small towns, as well as entrenched segregation and the still-not-dead American racial hierarchy. This desire to be around others who look and think the same as them is often the source for Republican politicians and beliefs.

The roots of anti-urbanist and anti-diversity rhetoric further originate in the American eugenics movement, a field deeply intertwined with crime-related stereotypes. In the years following World War II, American eugenicists claimed that cities were overcrowded and that tax money was going toward supporting “indigent” urban families on welfare. This was a part of their argument for pure “racial hygiene,” which unsettlingly echoes contemporary Republican talking points in the media. These arguments seek austerity to supposedly get people of color off of white people’s dime. Both the historical and modern arguments are not only ignorant and irrational, but they are deeply rooted in racism. These origins support Republican initiatives to deepen the rural-urban divide in terms of culture and resources, seeking to make cities with diversity as exceptionally dangerous and encouraging a biased practice of racial profiling. The criminalization of diversity has had disproportionate impacts on urban communities.

Cities have different reporting practices, definitions of crimes and different socioeconomic conditions, making it nearly impossible to compare the resulting statistics accurately. For example, St. Louis has a higher published crime rate than San Antonio. However, the city of St. Louis is considered separate from the St. Louis metropolitan area, while the city of San Antonio technically includes the larger metropolitan area. Therefore, San Antonio’s crime rates are more spread out into the less dense, more affluent suburbs, potentially obscuring the truth about its inner-city crime. Crime happens everywhere, and you can almost never accurately compare cities’ safety with the crime statistics they report.

Individualistic mistrust toward government infrastructure has played a role in sustaining the misperception of crime in cities. In the industrial boom that led to the rapid rise of cities, government actions and organizations of working-class people built infrastructure like paved roads, sewage systems, garbage disposal and other services. This level of government intervention for infrastructure was met with resistance and suspicion, which also influences perceptions of safety and crime in urban centers. Mistrust with governments at large is no unique phenomenon; an Austrian economics study found that individualistic attitudes were correlated with lower trust in government infrastructure. This creates a distorted and atomistic lens of crime as an individual act within a poor government structure rather than a total consideration of conditions.

I believe all discussion on crime is redundant unless it entails direct solutions to the core problem — people’s material conditions. The misconceptions of crime fog our vision and obstruct us from seeing the core problem of poverty. Crime isn’t always a decision people make of their own accord; it’s often a result of their conditions, according to criminologist Willem Bonger. Keeping resources behind a tight paywall from those who need it the most also shows the true face of corporations in their hostility toward the poor and the working class. 

We need to shift the misconceiving frame of crime from an atomistic perspective to what I believe to be the more accurate perspective, which is the environmental perspective. According to a report released in Scientific Reports, localities with higher economic inequality tend to have higher crime rates, suggesting that unequal distribution of economic resources is the most significant contributing factor to crime. If we want to really stop crime, we should address its root causes by working to eliminate poverty. Grassroots reinvestment in underserved communities is a place to start.

This negative and uninformed stereotype has repercussions in the justice system and law enforcement. It’s time to move away from these stereotypes and improve the lives of people instead of terrorizing them. 

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About the Contributors
Aron Boehle
Aron Boehle, Staff Writer
Aron Boehle (‘26) is from Kansas City, Mo., and is a transfer student majoring in political science. In his free time, he works out, writes and reads on the steps of the Parthenon. You can reach him at [email protected].
Lexie Perez
Lexie Perez, Graphics Director
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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