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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Homicide Among Young Black Males -- United States, 1970-1982

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established an objective for the nation calling for a substantial reduction in the homicide victimization rate for young black males: by 1990, the death rate from homicide among black males 15-24 years of age should be reduced to below 60/100,000 (compared with 72.5/100,000 in 1978) (1). To monitor and promote progress toward this objective, CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health are investigating trends and characteristics of homicide within this high-risk group (2).*

Homicide is currently the leading cause of death for young black males (15-24 years old) in the United States. In 1982, the homicide rate for this group was 72.0/100,000 population, almost six times that for white males in the same age group (13.1/100,000). Although the rate for young black males has fluctuated from 1970 through 1982, there has been an overall decrease of 33.5% (Figure 1). During the same 13-year period, homicide rates for young white males increased from 9.9/100,000 in 1970 to 13.1/100,000 in 1982.

The decline in the homicide rate has been more pronounced for young adult black males (20-24 years old) than for adolescent black males (15-19 years old). However, young adult black males maintained a number and rate of homicide over twice that of adolescent black males.

Homicide rates for young black males were consistently highest in the north-central states and lowest in the western states (Figure 2). The 13-year national decline in rates for young black males was not equally evident among geographic regions: rates declined more steeply in the south and northeast, with little decline in the west. Therefore, differences between these regions were smaller in 1980 than in 1970.

In 1980, the homicide rate for young black males living within Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs) was over twice that for young black males residing outside SMSAs (95.8/100,000, compared with 40.8/100,000). The rate for young white males within SMSAs was slightly less than twice that for young white males residing outside SMSAs (18.3/100,000, compared with 10.1/100,000).

Most homicides among young black males were committed with guns (71.1% of all weapons for 1976-1982); of those homicides committed with guns, 76.2% involved handguns. Cutting or piercing instruments were the second most frequently used weapon (20.2%) (Figure 3). Among young white males, 67.0% of homicides were committed using guns, and 23.4%, using cutting or piercing instruments.

In 1982, most young black male homicide victims were killed during or after arguments or other nonfelony circumstances (65.4%). A small proportion of homicides occurred in connection with documented criminal events, such as robberies or drug trafficking (11.2%). Homicide patterns were similar for white males: 62.9% were associated with arguments or other nonfelony circumstances, and 15.7%, with documented criminal events.

Most young black male homicide victims were killed by persons known to them, usually acquaintances but not family members (Figure 4). From 1976 to 1982, 46.2% were killed by acquaintances; 19.9%, by strangers; and 7.7%, by family members. Victim-offender relationship was unknown for 26.1% of young black male homicide victims. During that period, the percentage of homicides committed by an acquaintance of the victim declined. However, the number of homicides in which the victim-offender relationship was unknown increased. Among young white males, a smaller proportion of victims were killed by acquaintances (38.6%), and a slightly larger proportion, by strangers (23.8%). Reported by Center for Studies of Anti-Social and Violent Behavior, National Institute of Mental Health; Violence Epidemiology Br, Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The 1990 national health objective calling for a reduction in homicide rates focuses on one group at high risk for homicide victimization: young black males aged 15-24 years. Homicide rates for other age and sex categories within the black population, as well as for other minority groups, are also unacceptably high. For example, in 1980, homicide was the leading cause of death not only for black males aged 15-24 years, but also for black males aged 25-34. In 1980, homicide rates in every age category were higher for black males than for any other race/sex group. Black females aged 20-39 years died from homicide at rates exceeding those for white males and white females in the same age categories. In 1980, homicide was the fifth leading cause of death for blacks in the United States and the second leading cause of years of potential life lost (YPLL) for blacks under age 65 years. Evidence from special studies indicates that Hispanic males also have very high homicide rates, which exceed 30.0/100,000 and which fall between those for black males and white, non-Hispanic males (3-4).

The toll in black lives and YPLL that homicide takes represents only a small portion of the health burden of assaultive behavior. Injuries and emotional trauma associated with nonfatal assaults are also widespread. Based on information from the National Crime Survey, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that approximately one of every 25 U.S. blacks over 12 years old had been victimized by violent crime in 1982 (5). This proportion has remained fairly constant since 1978 but is probably underestimated, because not all victimizations are revealed to interviewers.

Although blacks continue to have higher homicide rates than whites, racial differences disappear or become much smaller when blacks are compared with whites of similar socioeconomic status (SES) (6-8). In addition, descriptive studies of homicide have consistently found that the majority of homicides are concentrated in urban areas characterized by low SES, high population density, and poor housing (9-10). The specific mechanisms through which low SES status affects violent behavior are still not well understood.

The decreasing rate of homicide among young black males since 1972 contrasts with increasing rates of homicide among black males during the early 1960s through the early 1970s. At present, the causes for these temporal patterns are not known.

At this stage in the public health effort to understand and prevent homicide, it is essential to establish a foundation for prevention. Research and prevention should focus on high-risk groups and, more specifically, on the weapons, relationships, and circumstances associated with homicide in these groups. The public should be made aware of the consequences and risks of violence, the steps which can be taken to reduce risk, and the resources available for dealing with problems associated with violence. Mechanisms should be developed for coordinating the efforts of law enforcement, health, and social service agencies at the national, state, and local levels to develop strategies to prevent homicide. Data-collection systems to monitor incidents involving interpersonal violence should be developed and evaluated. These data are needed to establish, as accurately as possible, the extent and nature of interpersonal violence so that researchers and policy-makers can: (1) assess the impact of the problem; (2) determine the quantity and type of resources needed to respond to the problem; and (3) track the effectiveness of existing as well as new prevention and intervention strategies.

The Violence Epidemiology Branch of the Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC, is working to encourage and facilitate greater involvement of public health, social service, and educational agencies in efforts to reduce the morbidity and mortality of interpersonal violence in all high-risk groups.


  1. U.S. Public Health Service. Promoting health/preventing disease: objectives for the nation. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1980.

  2. CDC. Violent deaths among persons 15-24 years of age--United States, 1970-1978. MMWR 1983;32:453-7.

  3. Smith JC, Mercy JA, Rosenberg ML. Comparison of homicides among Anglos and Hispanics. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Denver: November 1983.

  4. Pokorny A. A comparison of homicides in two cities. Journal of Criminal Law Criminology Police Science 1956;56:479-87.

  5. U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics--special report: the risk of violent crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1985.

  6. Loftin C, Hill RH. Regional subculture and homicide: an examination of the Gastil-Hackney thesis. Am Sociol Rev 1974;39:714-24.

  7. Williams KR. Economic sources of homicide: reestimating the effects of poverty and inequality. Am Sociol Rev 1984;49:283-9.

  8. Parker RN, Smith MD. Deterrence, poverty, and type of homicide. Am J Sociol 1979;85:614-24.

  9. Munford RS, Kazer RS, Feldman RA, Stivers RR. Homicide trends in Atlanta. Criminology 1976;14:213-31.

  10. Bensing RC, Schroeder O. Homicide in an urban community. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1960. *Homicide statistics related to the demographic and residential

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