Get the Lead Out!


TPM Reader RK gives us the anti-Lead maximalism argument on murder rates …

I am a sociologist who studies segregation and urban neighborhood boundaries, so I have some background with the issues of crime, murder, and American politics. Thank you for bringing it up in a very interesting and thought provoking way.

I’ve followed your pieces on the lead theory and the role of American violence with interest. I agree that the lead theory is likely a key piece of the puzzle, but one of the problems I have with that theory is that it takes from some scientific evidence and correlations the whole of a far more complicated issue.

Put in other terms, it its ahistorical and non-comparative. Or, in other words, am I supposed to believe no other country had lead gasoline and high population densities? Why didnt other industrialized countries go through a similar experience–and remember, this isn’t purely a story of American car exceptionalism. Drum jumps between key differences between homicide and violent crime. The comparison isn’t identical. And it has another problem in that the comparison assumes that because the countries all had lead at the same time and crime 23 years later, its the lead that led to the crime. Quite possibly, but that’s also a time where the economies of those other countries were changing in the same way the American economy was changing. Maybe deindustrlialization was happening because of lead poisioning? The correlation is strong there too! And toddlers and children often move from city to city, so that an area’s lead is high doesn’t mean the 23 year olds committing crimes grew up there and experienced long term exposure. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

American lead contamination is embedded within the growth of the new urban ghetto, a period of rapid segregation of new cities, along with the decline of the urban economy and white flight.

Any sort of silver bullet based theory is going to be wrong. The problem of the lead contamination argument is that its appeal is, in part, the lack of an actively malignant empowered white population. It makes the main problem not the racism and its role in American capitalism, but a naivete that is easily beaten with science. That’s just not how it happened–it is certainly a part of how it happened, and it is important for us to understand what lead does and how to fight it. But to do so without also actively highlighting the role of local, state, and federal government as well as private industry in creating the ghetto, depolicing (and then repolicing) it, and devestment is to paint an overly rosy picture of one of the most inhumane things Americans have done on the basis of race. Lead exposure is a part of that, but it is important not to let medical/biological explanations lose the basic fact that they are embedded in our social experience.

This should not be a situation in which the options are lead or sociological answers. It’s abundantly clear that it is lead and sociological answers.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of