In 2023, most large U.S. cities saw a precipitous drop in the rate of homicides. Despite the public perception of a rise in violent crime in major metropolitan areas, cities like Chicago and New York City saw dramatic declines in murders from 2022. But a few cities bucked that trend, including the nation’s capital. With the fifth-highest murder rate among the country’s most populous cities, Washington, D.C. has drawn national attention for its recent spike in violent crime.
The statistics are sobering: 2023 was the District’s deadliest year since 1997, with 274 recorded homicides. With 40 homicides per 100,000 residents—an increase of 35 percent from the previous year—D.C.’s high murder rate contrasted with falling levels in most other major cities, an ominous reminder of the District’s unofficial status in the late twentieth century as “America’s murder capital.” The high number of homicides was inextricable from gun violence, as the majority of these homicides were caused by firearms.
Violent crime in the District also increased dramatically in 2023, rising 39 percent compared to the previous year. Here, it’s worth noting that “crimes of violence” are definitionally broad under the D.C. Code, including robbery, burglary, and homicide; pickpocketing, for example, constitutes the same offense of robbery as being robbed at gunpoint. Nonetheless, the numbers are jarring: In 2023, there were 959 reported carjackings. Juveniles and teenaged adults consisted the majority of the arrests for carjacking, according to Matthew Graves, the U.S. attorney for D.C.
As the problem of crime in D.C. has garnered national attention—due in part, no doubt, because of its status as the nation’s capital and seat of government—politicians in D.C. have found themselves on the defensive. Several District officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, have recently testified before Congress. In March of 2023, the D.C. Council withdrew legislation that would have updated its criminal code, largely because of opposition from House Republicans and many congressional Democrats. The District is unique in that laws passed by the Council must be reviewed by Congress, further granting the issue of crime in D.C. national political salience.
But understanding the spike in violent crime in D.C.—which itself often involves guns—is not a simple task. Criminal justice experts believe that considering violence in the District must involve an examination of the structural problems that have left its most vulnerable residents behind.
Issues of racial inequality and gentrification are not unique to D.C., but they are particularly intense in the District. Once known as “Chocolate City” due to its majority-Black population, the demographics of the District have changed dramatically in recent decades, with Black residents accounting for only 45 percent of the city’s population in 2022. “If you look at D.C. in the year 2000, for example, there were no low-income white neighborhoods. So gentrification in D.C. is always a racialized process,” said Tanya Golash-Boza, the executive director of the University of California, Washington Center and the author of Before Gentrification: The Creation of DC’s Racial Wealth Gap.
When higher-income, primarily white residents move into redeveloped neighborhoods, its is thus Black residents who are displaced, said Golash-Boza. Compared to their white counterparts, Black residents of the District are more likely to live in poverty and be unemployed, disproportionately live in neighborhoods that experience higher rates of homicide, and even lack sufficient access to health care. All of these factors contribute to a sense of “relative deprivation,” said Golash-Boza. “The idea is not just that you’re poor, but also that you can see other people around you with more,” she said.
You can read the full article at The New Republic.