Regardless of socioeconomic status, Black communities face higher gun homicides

In a Wharton study, chair of the Statistics Department Dylan Small says reasons for the disparity include institutional racism, underinvestment in communities, and housing segregation.

Yard full of standing colorful t-shirts with the names of people killed by guns in black marker written across them.
Memorial to victims of gun violence in Philadelphia. (Image: Michael Stokes)

Majority Black neighborhoods have higher gun homicide rates than mostly white neighborhoods of the same socioeconomic status level, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open by Wharton Professor Dylan Small and School of Arts & Sciences undergraduates Yuzhou Lin and Audrey Chaeyoung Cheon. Wei Wang, a senior research investigator at the Perelman School of Medicine; and David Harding, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, were also co-authors.

Utilizing data from the Gun Violence Archive and American Community Survey, the researchers found that, among middle class neighborhoods, the rate of gun homicides is more than four times higher in neighborhoods with mostly Black residents than neighborhoods with mostly white residents. Small says there are several possible reasons for the disparity, including lack of institutional resources and opportunities caused by racial wealth gaps and underinvestment.

portrait of Prof. Dylan Small
Wharton professor, Dylan Small, chair of the Statistics Department (Image: Wharton School)

“Black families have systematically lower household wealth than white families, including lower home values,” says Small, the Class of 1965 Professor of Statistics at Wharton. “In addition, there tends to be less public and private investment in majority-Black neighborhoods. That can translate into fewer resources in the neighborhood, especially relative to need. For example, a lack of resources for programs for adolescents and young adults that might help them to stay away from gangs and street conflicts.”

Small says the higher gun homicide rates exist across socioeconomic status due to America’s history of racially segregated housing.

“The U.S. remains highly residentially segregated by race despite improvements since the 1960s,” he says. “Besides residential segregation reducing Black individuals’ socioeconomic status by such mechanisms as inhibiting wealth accumulation through housing value and limiting access to high-quality schools, our findings suggest that even among neighborhoods of the same socioeconomic status, residential segregation may put Black individuals at higher risk of gun homicide.”

The researchers suggest that public policies to reduce gun violence and racial disparities need to go beyond alleviating poverty. They plan to continue researching and analyzing several aspects and results of the project.

More specifically, they are thinking about pinpointing the demographic characteristics of the people influenced by gun homicides.

“It will also be interesting to analyze the effect of racial segregation on gun violence to account for unmeasured confounding variables that affect segregation and the amount of gun violence,” says Lin.

Harding adds: “We hope that our research will be useful in formulating policies to reduce racial disparities in gun homicide risk.”