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Topics in Minority Health Homicide Among Young Black Males -- United States, 1978-1987

In 1987, homicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of premature mortality (i.e., years of potential life lost before age 65). Homicide affects all age, race, and sex groups and is the leading cause of death for young black males (15-24 years of age) (1). Both the 1990 and Year 2000 Health Objectives for the Nation target a reduction in the homicide rate among this population (2,3). This report uses mortality statistics from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to characterize homicides* among young black males for 1978-1987.

From 1978 though 1987, 20,315 young black males died as a result of homicide, for an average annual rate of 73.1 per 100,000. In 1987, homicides accounted for 42% of deaths among young black males, and the homicide rate for this group was 84.6 per 100,000--the highest rate of the decade and 40% higher than in 1984. From 1978 through 1987, firearms** accounted for 15,781 (78%) homicides among young black males. Yearly fluctuations in total homicides corresponded closely with the pattern for homicides committed with firearms (Figure 1). From 1984 through 1987, the nonfirearm homicide rate for young black males increased 7% (from 14.4 to 15.4 per 100,000), and the firearm homicide rate increased by 50% (from 46.2 to 69.3 per 100,000). Overall, firearm-related homicides accounted for 96% of the increase in the homicide rate for young black males from 1984 through 1987.

The percent increase in homicide rates from 1984 through 1987 was greater for adolescent black males aged 15-19 years (55% (from 38.5 to 59.6 per 100,000)) than for those aged 20-24 years (33% (from 83.3 to 111.1 per 100,000)). For adolescent black males, both the homicide rate and the proportion of homicides committed with firearms were highest in 1987 (59.6 per 100,000 and 83%, respectively). In 1987, 34% of deaths among adolescent black males were homicides committed with a firearm.

From 1978 through 1987, annual homicide rates for young black males were four to five times higher than for young black females, five to eight times higher than for young white males, and 16-22 times higher than for young white females (Figure 2). Since 1984, the disparity between homicide rates for young black males and other racial/sex groups increased substantially; for example, a comparison of 1984 with 1987 indicates that the ratio of homicide rates for black males to those for white males increased 38%, from 5.6 to 7.7 (Table 1).

In 1987, of the 23 states with a population of young black males sufficient to enable stable estimates for homicide rates (4), 14 had a homicide rate for this group that exceeded the 1990 health objective of less than 60 per 100,000 (Figure 3). Rates exceeded 100 per 100,000 in California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and the District of Columbia.*** In addition, from 1984 to 1987, the homicide rate for young black males increased 22% in Missouri, 40% in the District of Columbia, 64% in New York, 68% in Florida, 71% in California, and 76% in Michigan. Reported by: Intentional Injuries Section, Epidemiology Br, Div of Injury Control, Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The disproportionate impact of homicide among young black males was recognized in the 1990 health objective that targeted a reduction in the homicide rate for this group to less than 60 per 100,000 (2). Although homicides declined among young black males during the early 1980s, from 1984 through 1987, the homicide rate for this group increased sharply. Based on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting System through June 1990, homicide rates have continued to increase since 1987**** (5).

This report identified four disturbing features in the epidemiology of homicide in young black males. First, firearm-associated homicides accounted for greater than 80% of deaths and greater than 95% of the recent large increase. Second, the increase since 1984 was especially marked among adolescent black males. Third, the already large disparity in homicide rates between black males and other racial/sex groups has widened. Fourth, certain areas had the highest rates, accounted for most cases, and had considerable recent increases in homicide rates. For example, the six areas with homicide rates greater than 100 per 100,000 persons contained 29% of the young black male population but accounted for 51% of all homicide-attributable deaths in this group in 1987. If these six areas had attained the 1990 health objective for homicide rates for young black males, the homicide rate for this population in 1987 would have decreased 31%.

Homicide among young black males and other groups can result from behaviors such as domestic violence, child abuse, rape, and physical fighting among acquaintances. Despite a common perception that victims of homicide are usually killed by unknown assailants during robberies or drug-related crimes, more than half of all homicide victims are killed by persons known to them. Factors identified as potentially important contributors to homicide include immediate access to firearms, alcohol and substance abuse, drug trafficking, poverty, racial discrimination, and cultural acceptance of violent behavior (6-8).

Because research and evaluation efforts have not yet demonstrated effective programmatic approaches to prevent homicide, priority areas for research and intervention should target 1) the causes for the recent rise in homicide among young black males; 2) prevention of firearm-related morbidity and mortality; 3) improved understanding of the role of alcohol, drugs, and drug trafficking in homicide; 4) prevention of violent, aggressive behavior; and 5) identification of modifiable risk factors for homicide among urban youths of lower socioeconomic status.

Compared with other injury-control priorities, public health efforts to prevent homicide among young black males and other persons in high-risk groups have only recently been implemented. In 1987, only two (0.6%) of 325 injury-prevention programs based in state health departments focused on homicide (9). Since 1986, only one (0.2%) of 552 award-winning community-based health promotion projects specifically has included homicide (CDC, unpublished data). Proposed interventions to reduce homicides include drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention, firearm control, interventions directed at the effects of television violence, school-based interventions, and public education (6). Such projects should be carefully designed and rigorously evaluated so that successful programs can be replicated.

At the national level, 30 of the year 2000 health objectives target a reduction in the incidence of homicide and violent behaviors among young black males and persons in other high-risk groups (3). At the local level, communities with high homicide rates can develop and implement projects using established principles of health promotion (10). These include the formation of coalitions of community leaders and organizations and reviews of local data concerning homicides and violent behaviors. Local health agencies should consider developing homicide-prevention programs and collaborate with social services, the criminal justice system, and other community services in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of community projects. Coordinated efforts among multiple agencies are likely to be important components of national efforts to reduce homicide rates for young black males and other persons.

The identification of promising approaches to homicide and violence prevention will be the focus of a conference on minority violence cosponsored by Morehouse University and CDC on December 10-12, 1990, in Atlanta.


  1. CDC. Homicide surveillance, high-risk racial and ethnic groups--blacks and Hispanics, 1970-1983. Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1983.

  2. Public Health Service. Promoting health/preventing disease: objectives for the nation. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1980.

  3. Public Health Service. Healthy people 2000: national health promotion and disease prevention objectives. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1990.

  4. Fingerhut LA, Kleinman JC. International and interstate comparisons of homicide among young males. JAMA 1990;263:3292-5.

  5. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Press release. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, October 21, 1990.

  6. National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury prevention: meeting the challenge--a report of the National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  7. University of California at Los Angeles/CDC. The epidemiology of homicide in the city of Los Angeles, 1970-79. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1985.

  8. Goldstein PJ, Brownstein HH, Ryan PJ, Bellucci PA. Crack and homicide in New York City, 1988: a conceptually based event analysis. Contemporary Drug Problems 1989;(Winter):651-86.

  9. Childhood Injury Prevention Resource Center. Injury prevention programs in state health departments, a national survey. Boston: Harvard School of Public Health, 1988.

  10. Green LW, Kreuter MW. Health promotion planning: an educational and environmental approach. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing (in press). *International Classification of Diseases, eighth (ICD-8) and ninth (ICD-9) revisions, rubrics E960-E969. ** Firearm-related homicides are defined as ICD-8 and ICD-9 rubric E965. Although this rubric includes deaths from explosives, such deaths account for less than 0.1% of total homicides from firearms and explosives. ***Florida, 119.7; Missouri, 130.5; New York, 135.3; the District of Columbia, 135.8; California, 153.9; and Michigan, 231.6. ****Recently released mortality statistics from NCHS indicate that the homicide rate for young black males increased 19% from 1987 to 1988.

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