Nation & World

Crime, fear, and loathing

7 min read

Harvard professors turn a critical eye on safety, anxiety, and how they’re shaping society

Jean and John Comaroff, professors in the Department of African and African American Studies and Department of Anthropology, and faculty associates of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, divide their teaching and research between Harvard and universities in South Africa. A recent joint effort, “The Truth about Crime,” analyzes why societies become obsessed with crime. The Weatherhead Center spoke to them at their home in Cape Town about these findings and their book. 

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: You say the white elites in South Africa have the highest anxiety about crime, yet they experience the fewest incidents. What accounts for the disconnect?

JEAN COMAROFF: They are used to controlling their worlds. So, if they suffer a domestic robbery or a carjacking, it feels momentous, life-threatening — which it sometimes is, although less often than South African whites believe — because life is meant to be safe for people like them. Or so they assume. They buy insurance. They live in well-protected homes. They believe that the state ought to protect them. Those who live on the South Side of Chicago or in black townships — or, for that matter, in U.S. inner cities — are not in control of their worlds in the same way. And do not have the same expectations.

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: Do you both feel safe living in Cape Town?

JEAN: We feel no less safe living in Cape Town than we did when we lived on the South Side of Chicago, where affluent and deprived communities live in close proximity. In both, crime rates vary enormously across the urban scape. If one knows the social geography and crime maps of the city in which one lives — and one has the means, the capital — one can avoid dangerous areas to a significant degree.

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: Is disproportionate fear of crime a global phenomenon?

JOHN COMAROFF: Rising fears of crime appear to be popping up all over the world, including in unexpected places. If you read Swedish newspapers, people are panicking about immigrants and lawlessness, even though their actual rates are minuscule. In Singapore there are street signs saying “Low crime is not no crime.” Why in Singapore, of all places? In many parts of the world, moral panics about crime correlate very closely with the shrinkage of the welfare state. But very little public discussion attends to this fact. In the United States, it would be regarded as “too ideological,” even “socialist,” to raise the possibility.

Public Perception of Crime Rate at Odds with Reality

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: You point to a loss of trust in government, or the state, to protect people and enforce the law. Can you describe the structural changes that may underlie this crisis of trust?

JEAN: Many people from Africa who come to the United States say the first thing they notice is the profound mistrust in government, as if the state is there to rob you, to spy on you, to extract your secrets.

We argue in our book that ultimately this is due to the ways in which the relationship among the state, the private sector, and policing has changed. Since many of the classical functions of government, including warfare and enforcement, are now outsourced, we can never really be sure who actually is drawing that line between the law and its transgression, between good and ill, or with what intent: for their own profit or for the interests of those they claim to be serving.

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: As you illustrate, corrosion of trust stems from not knowing if your government is good or bad, if law enforcement is on your side or working for some other interest. How has this ambiguity toward the state been reflected in our popular art forms?

JEAN: The content of crime television shows has changed a lot sociologically. For a long time our predominant model was the “positive” detective, a “goodie,” who, even if he had to break the law to catch his criminal adversary, even if he was a maverick, managed to solve the puzzle and put the world to rights. That’s why it is often argued that crime fiction is on the side of state power and social order. What has shifted recently is the proportion of shows in which it’s not so clear who is on which side. Or where the line actually is.

Think about the popularity in the United States of “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” TV dramas that do not allow us to draw a clear distinction between the criminal and legitimate. Who are the criminals? Are they the cops? How do we differentiate in “Breaking Bad” between the drug manufacturer Walter White and his police officer brother-in-law? Who’s paying for whose medical care? The officer’s wife is a kleptomaniac, but her husband does not treat her thefts as crime.

JOHN: And in these stories, we don’t trust the state to solve the problem. The guy who is supposed to be the law is often now himself in the game.

Professors John and Jean Comaroff divide their time between Harvard and universities in South Africa. “We feel no less safe living in Cape Town than we did when we lived on the South Side of Chicago,” said Jean Comaroff. Photo courtesy of the Comaroffs

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: So, popular art is acting like a mirror on our modern anxieties about the state?

JOHN: Yes. Think about the [Whitey] Bulger trial in Boston. Once it started to play out it wasn’t clear whether he or the FBI was on trial; the feds had allowed this man to operate in the interest of getting at the local mafia. Meanwhile, everybody was on the take, including, allegedly, Bulger’s brother, a long-time state senate president.

WEATHERHEAD CENTER: In the United States, we have seen a pattern of homicides of unarmed black men by police. Does your research help us to understand the culture of fear of one another?

JOHN: Cops are terrified of black men, and black men are terrified of cops. These are two worlds each reading the other as intensely and universally hostile. Part of the problem is that neither side can, in effect, read the other; they cannot tell apart those of whom they might be legitimately afraid and those who are essentially benign. For both, the signs are largely unreadable.

JEAN: We live in a profoundly divided social world, one that “reads” race very quickly, but does not read class terribly well. If cops coming across a black youth on the South Side of Chicago could read the signs that signal “middle-class kid” or “propertied family,” they would probably leave that kid alone. But they can’t. British cops had a similar crisis back when we were teaching there. Black students would tell us that police who saw them carrying a briefcase or a computer simply assumed that they had stolen it. We are, in short, a society very poor at social reading — and one in which it is widely believed that crime lurks everywhere.

Racism goes in every direction in our world. In its most innocent form, it arises from the inability to read social signs — and the fears that follow from not knowing how to read them.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. To read the full story, visit the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs website.