Violence cited in lagging life expectancy among US blacks. Drug-related murders widen mortality gap between blacks, whites

Murder in inner cities - often drug-related - is dragging down the average life expectancy of blacks in the United States. A report by the National Center for Health Statistics says blacks have higher rates than whites for the leading causes of death.

According to the center, homicide is not the only disproportionate threat to black lives in the US. But the largest race differential continues to be for homicide and ``legal intervention'' - police shootings and legal executions.

Both are inextricably tied to the nation's drug epidemic and its attendant violence.

According to the report, the toll is especially heavy on black youths. Meanwhile, the same study shows that life expectancy among white Americans continues to increase.

Across the board, mortality from these causes increased more rapidly than for any of the other leading causes between 1985 and 1986 - 8 percent.

``There has been a sea change; drugs have had a horrendous effect,'' says Dr. Harry Rosenberg, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the center. ``Drugs account for half the homicides.''

In 1986 there were 21,193 homicides and 269 deaths from legal intervention in the US. Although blacks comprise only about 12 percent of the US population, 35 percent of those deaths were of black males, nearly equal the 39 percent of white males.

Between 1985 and 1986, the latest years for which the national center has collected data, the white population experienced an increase in life expectancy, to a record high of 75.4 years; but the black population experienced a decrease for the second year in a row, to 69.4 years.

Also, the center reports this is the first time that a decline in life expectancy has occurred two years in succession for the black population since 1970, when life-expectancy data for blacks were first compiled on an annual basis. While the difference in life expectancy between the white and black population narrowed from 7.6 years in 1970 to 5.6 years in 1983 and 1984, it has increased since then, to 6.0 years in 1986.

The probabilty that a white male is a victim or perpetrator of a homicide in the course of his life is 1 in 80; for black males living in central cities, it is 1 in 10, says Everett Lee, a demography professor at the University of Georgia.

``In 1984, 38 percent of all deaths were homicide of young black males. In 1986, it was just about the same with a sharp increase in suicide,'' he says. ``The highest victim rates are young men in their 20s and 30s, young black males killing young black males.

``From age 14 to 21 young blacks can get a job every summer through programs designed to keep them off the street.'' says Dr. Arthur H. Hoyt, former District of Columbia public health commissioner and Georgetown University Medical Center professor. ``Once they hit 22, with limited education, the rejection starts.

``I see it getting worse before it gets better,'' says Thomas Reppetto, president of the Citizen Crime Commission, a private crime watchdog group in New York City. ``Our sample study says half the murder in this town is drug-related. These young guys are making a great deal of money. The violence carries over into neighborhood streets.''

Professor Lee says the high incidence of black violence is attributable primarily to the uneven distribution of economic prosperity, as a result of which most young blacks have been left ``out in the cold.''

He says in the 1950s, when the US was experiencing a post-war boom, the homicide rate dipped to its lowest point. Conversely, it climbed during the Great Depression and the recession of the 1970s.

Dr. Hoyt says he is optimistic about President-elect George Bush's commitment to a more compassionate society.

He cites Barbara Bush's long involvement with the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) program and the President-elect's choice of Louis W. Sullivan, the black president of Morehouse College School of Medicine, to be secretary of health and human services, as indicators of their earnestness.

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