September 14, 2009

The flap over Henry Lewis Gates and arresting officer James Crowley was supposed to be a “€œteachable moment,”€ but other than the predictable outcries of “€œwhite racism lives!”€ the incident has proven to be of little pedagogical value. Nevertheless, it does illustrate a profound if disquieting truth”€”how blacks react to efforts to curtail crime, especially when they themselves are the victims. Remember, it was a black person’s house that was supposedly being burglarized and a black who could have been robbed, yet the white police officer, at least to many blacks, immediately became the evil perpetrator. This racially tinged rescuer-becomes-foe incident is hardly unique; in fact, whites helping African-American crime victims, only to be condemned for their efforts, had become so commonplace that it almost goes unnoticed. This is a disaster for blacks.

Some preliminary statistics. First, blacks commit an inordinate amount of violent crime. In 2005, for example, blacks were seven time more likely than whites to commit a homicide. Second, blacks themselves are typically the victims of this violence”€”between 1976 and 2005, 94 percent of all blacks killed in a homicide were killed by other blacks. In 2008, homicide was the leading cause of death for black males aged 10-24 and the second leading cause of death for women of that age. This pattern is true for other violent crimes”€”it is largely intra-racial with blacks across the board disproportionately being both perpetrator and victim. This damage far exceeds personal harm, though that is horrific enough.

Entire neighborhoods, whole cities like Newark, NJ, and Detroit, MI, resemble bombed-out Berlin in 1945 due to self-inflicted mayhem, while law-abiding black residents suffer unemployment, boarded up stores, vandalized housing, dangerous schools, and all the rest thanks to rampant criminality. Many residents are terrified prisoners in their own apartments; a visit to a park can risk robbery, or worse, and middle-class blacks prudently flee these war zones. It is no exaggeration to say that sharply reducing black-on-black (BoB) crime would be the single biggest economic uplift to black America.

Unfortunately, an all-too-familiar scenario afflicts these neighborhoods, a seemingly endless cycle of counter-productive depravity. It begins with a particularly grievous BoB triggering incident, for example, innocent school kids killed in a gang-related shootout, a college student home for the holidays stabbed for being in the wrong 7/11 at the wrong time, or a teenager murdered for his designer sneakers. Outrage soon follows”€”friends and neighbors rally to demand something be done to end the senseless killing, local ministers sermonize about yet one more life tragically cut short, and family members weep for the fallen at the well-attended funeral. City Hall promises a crack-down and police respond by stepping up patrols, anti-gang unit are mobilized, undercover agents are dispatched, suspicious types are stopped and frisked, roadblocks keep gangs out, surveillance cameras are installed, “€œquality of life”€ crimes are targeted to deter more serious offenses, tipster hotlines are instituted, and all the rest.

Arrests soar and judges make examples of the worst offenders. It works”€”crimes drop, businesses, many of which are black owned or run, are again filled with customers. Mothers once more take their children shopping and let them visit playgrounds. But, sooner or later, a contentious race-infused incident occurs”€”a routine traffic stop goes awry, a prominent local minister is arrested for disorderly conduct, or the police mistakenly shoot an innocent person who appears to be pulling out a non-existent gun. Think Rodney King. The local “€œcommunity”€ now erupts with the familiar cries of police brutality, racial profiling, stereotyping, and white racism. The “€œNo Justice, No Peace”€ placards are taken out of storage, demagogues call for a federal investigation, and the politically savvy mayor takes to the streets to cool the outrage. Boycotts are threatened; black state and national legislators demand that heads roll. Community activists begin wailing about the staggering black-male incarceration rates (“€œthe prison industrial complex”€). Police and firefighters prepare for riots. The police prudently back off, ignoring petty crimes like public intoxication and waiting for any lawbreaking to escalate into deadly violence. Crime levels, true to form, return to “€œnormal,”€ until another deadly BoB incident involving innocent bystanders begins the process anew.

What could possible explain this deadly but ultimately avoidable cycle? Why is there nobody who will pronounce the obvious”€”a few regrettable police encounters are a cheap price to pay for enhanced public safety and all the other benefits that come from sharply reducing criminality. To be frank, few African-Americans seem willing to discuss this pattern openly (one exception is the Little Rock, Arkansas-based Black on Black Crime Coalition, which advocates a combination of education, publicity, and social work-type programs). Not even brave “€œtough love”€ critics like Bill Cosby will speak forcefully on this self-depilating cycle. Still, the carnage is too great to ignore, so let me suggest a few plausible hypotheses on why this cycle is tolerated, all of which are “€œoffensive”€ and unspeakable in today’s climate of forcefed racial sensitivity.

Hypothesis #1: Extortion Trumps Safety. In a world where extracting government largess is a handy path to riches, perhaps nothing outshines threatening a riot after some white cops brutalize a black, regardless of justifications and even if the offense is mostly rumor. Tom Wolfe’s Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers had it down perfectly”€”extortion steeped in the language of compassionate social welfare. The lack of social cohesion and absence of strong top-down leadership characteristic of Ghetto neighborhoods make selfish opportunism almost inevitable”€”nothing can stop the self-designated entrepreneurial trouble-maker.

The threat of burning and looting, even if victims themselves are largely black, is the pretext for jobs and programs directed toward the neighbor’s Leader of Most Outrage, who boasts of the semblance of a mob following. Money is quickly poured into the usual “€œroot cause”€ solutions and while ineffective in reducing the criminal violence, they bring selective prosperity and new-found social standing. A ten-year-old killed in mindless though perhaps preventable schoolyard shootings might be likened to an industrial accidents”€”unfortunate but necessary in creating wealth

Hypothesis #2: A Too Fine-Grained Anti-Crime Net. It is all too easy to overlook that violent neighborhoods are also filled with less-violent crime: illegal gambling (e.g., “€œplaying the numbers”€), unlicensed selling of alcohol, fencing “€œhot”€ merchandize, petty theft, running errands or serving as lookouts for organized crime, distributing illegal weapons, street-level prostitution, unlawful peddling, dealing small amounts of drugs, and other forms of “€œhustling.”€ Even perfectly law-abiding residents may financially profit from these activities and suffer when miscreant family members are jailed. Furthermore, at least some of these activities, e.g., buying shoplifted merchandise, may be culturally acceptable and economically necessary since legitimate businesses avoid poor black neighborhoods. So, police stake-outs to deter drive-by shootings “€œunintentionally”€ hinder multiple other illegal (but tolerated) income-producing activities, for example, the street-corner marijuana market. And while the economic benefits of violent crime reduction may require months to see, the loss of income from ending less severe crimes is immediate (particularly where cops crack down on “€œquality of life”€ offenses such as public drinking, petty gambling and prostitution).

Hypothesis #3: Unflattering Publicity. Heightened vigorous policing will bring unwelcome publicity about black criminality, hardly what is needed given already widespread low opinions (“€œdisrespect”€) about black educational accomplishment, work habits, welfare dependency, and the promiscuity that promotes sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. The police department’s mobilization itself is a frank admission that African Americans cannot be relied upon to obey the law without outside intervention. Further add that this rescue will be white organized and conducted according to “€œwhite justice”€ even if the Chief of Police and his lieutenants are black. In a sense, the newly arrived cops are an unsympathetic occupation army and their very presence humiliates blacks. Meanwhile the local media will have a field day with the soaring arrests, many for “€œstupid”€ crimes. Say what you will about the Italian Mafia, but everybody knows that neighborhoods with a strong mob presence are very safe”€”they can take care of their own”€”and even those who despise the mob can respect this accomplishment. 

These are plausible hypotheses, not scientific facts, and they certainly overlap. They are separated only so as to help disentangle a highly complex phenomenon. But assume for the moment that all three hypotheses contain ample truth and are more accurate for some areas at certain times than others, but generally apply to this BoB crime cycle. Are there sensible, practical policy prescriptions that flow from this analysis? Alas, if these hypotheses are correct, the future is grim.

Clamping down on the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world is futile. Such demagogues are often local heroes. Their mischief is First Amendment protected and, to be frank, they thrive in a symbiotic (and profitable) relationship with the mass media. The boisterous “€œNo Justice, No Peace”€ march is a staple on the 6:00PM news, even if it were scientifically demonstrated that this ruckus would eventually bring death to dozens of African American war-zone residents. Extortion is a hard-to-kick habit and, to be blunt, nobody seeks therapy. Rabble-rousing just outshines a boring 9 to 5 job.

Similar pessimism surrounds white-directed “€œculturally sensitive”€ policing so as to not interfere with minor crimes while eliminating senseless killing. This asks police to square circles, that is, use roadblocks to stop gang intrusions, while not running background checks on detainees and ignoring open trafficking in drugs and transporting of counterfeit merchandise. This conspicuously selective law enforcement invites outrage. Imagine the city-wide fallout if the police commissioner instructed local officers to ignore public intoxication and hookers in black neighborhoods and concentrate only on attempted murder? Such “€œtolerance”€ openly invites yet more crime and much of it will turn violent. A cure worse than the disease.

Banishing unfavorable and embarrassing publicity is even more pointless. Even the most politically sensitive mainstream media cannot (and should not) resist the “€œInnocent school girls gunned down in drive-by shooting”€ headline. Nor will refusing to print racial characteristics of perpetrator and victim solve the awkwardness problem”€”the crime’s location, its stereotypical “€œblack”€ nature, and the pictures always defeat “€œhelpful”€ denial. Governments itself only adds to this shame by compiling crime data by race and then posting these “€œdisrespectful”€ data on the web. The stigma is inescapable.  

The problem is not, however, insolvable. It certainly does not require resurrecting endless failed Great Society “€œroot cause”€ nostrums and similar failures like “€œbetter pre-school,”€ ever-vacuous “€œmore education,”€ and recreational programs for at-risk youth (e.g., midnight basketball). Recall how mob-dominated neighborhoods, many of which are lower-middle class at best, enjoy a well-deserved reputation for public safety. In a word, the solution is vigilantism”€”citizens themselves apprehend and punish suspected criminals. This solution is not as far-fetched as it might initially appear, and it can suffice where government is rendered powerless to perform its most basic function. Though it may conjure up images of KKK lynchings, the American frontier relied on vigilantes, and while abuses occurred, it far outshined anarchy. Many closely knit contemporary religious groups are largely self-policing”€”the Amish, Hasidic Jews, among others. It can even be outsourced by hiring private contractors (and the “€œNeighborhood Watch”€ program and gated communities are likewise non-violent version).

Vigilantism can be perfectly legal, even peaceful. African-Americans disgusted over rampant crime can certainly patrol their neighborhoods (and with ferocious-looking dogs) and alert the police to impending violence, videotape drug dealing, collect information on crack-house addresses or gang insignia, file complaints against businesses facilitating crime, harass local law-breakers, and guard schoolyards while letting it be known that they will testify in court, regardless of the “€œStop the Snitching“€ T-shirts. Indeed, such perfectly legal tactics have long been recognized as a neighborhood’s first line of defense against crime”€”the millions of eyes ever on the lookout for trouble, and if something does occur, a willingness to intervene immediately or at least call 911. All states except North Carolina permit some form of citizen’s arrest and all permit civilians to help detain suspected criminals until the police arrive. After awhile, even stupid criminals get the message”€”don”€™t go in there. It is a bit ironic that modern video technology has become the weapon of choice to document police abuses but is seldom used against criminals in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

This can go beyond purely peaceful anti-crime activities but still well short of Death Wish-type summary executions. The Guardian Angles with their distinctive red berets, red jackets, and white tee-shirts have long played this protective role (they now have chapters in 100 cities in 11 countries). All receive martial arts and legal training. Kelly D. Hine’s law journal overview of modern vigilantism concludes that juries (including grand juries) generally tolerate citizens who take the law into their own hands if the state is reluctant to act. Such tolerance, in Hine’s opinion is especially likely where criminals violate community norms or the vigilante acts to prevent a preventable serious offense, for example, brandishing a gun to stop an armed robbery. To repeat, it is the jury, not the cold letter of the law, that permits communities to protect themselves from criminal violence, and it is hard to visualize a jury with African-Americans (and others exposed to such criminality) siding with gang-bangers accosted by baseball-wielding locals sick and tired of shakedowns. Without a doubt, the vigilantes will probably be treated as heroes and honored for demonstrating for their “€œwe take care of our own”€ spirit.

To return to the Gates/Crowley incident, there is a “€œteachable”€ element here, and a life-and-death one at that. It begins with some simple questioms: Why don”€™t blacks embrace anti-crime measures designed to help blacks? Why do African-Americans prefer to shout “€œracism”€ versus “€œthanks”€? Our analysis has only touched the surface and suggested one possible “€œMade-in-the-Community”€ solution, but much more remains to be done. Until that happens, however, millions of African-Americans who are not Ivy League professors with highly placed friends will live lives that are unnecessarily solitary, nasty, often brutish, and all-too short.


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