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An Anguished Cry Of `Enough' In America's Killing Fields

Cover Story


Crime is an American tragedy, especially for blacks. African Americans are disproportionately both perpetrators and victims of criminal violence. Blacks make up almost half the country's prison admissions, and nearly one in four black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in prison, on parole, or on probation. And homicide is the leading cause of death among black youths. Says Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund: "We lose more black men to guns in our cities in one year than we lost to all the lynchings after the Civil War."

Fear stalks inner-city streets. And in recent months, political leaders, ministers, and academics have all begun a crusade against crime, crying out to young black men to stop the violence. The Reverend Jesse Jackson rails against the lethal combination of guns and drugs in inner-city high schools. President Bill Clinton invokes the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a plea to stop killing "each other with reckless abandonment." Increasingly, both liberals and conservatives are crossing racial and ideological divides to find common ground on policies that nurture families, support communities, create jobs, and provide more police protection in America's ghettos.

What's so discouraging is that black crime has become pervasive in many inner cities even as black politicians have gained power throughout the land, as the ranks of the black middle class have expanded, and as black high school graduation rates have risen.

CRIME PAYS. The reasons for the increase in violent crime are multifaceted, but the starting point is economic: The rewards for honest work for the less-educated have fallen, while the payoff for crime has risen. Urban jobs declined sharply beginning in the early 1970s, as foreign competition heated up. Inner cities began a downward spiral as work disappeared.

At the same time, explosive growth in the drug trade and other illegal pursuits offered jobs and good money. A 1989 survey of youth crime in Boston shows that average hourly pay from crime ranged from $9.75 to $19 an hour (and no taxes), vs. the $5.60 an hour that youths earned after taxes from legitimate work, according to Richard B. Freeman, an economist at Harvard University. "Essentially, what is happening is that wage and employment opportunities have declined dramatically, and opportunities in the criminal sector have grown," says Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Michigan State University.

The sharp decline of the two-parent family is also part of the crime problem. These days, 56% of black families are headed by women, and the figure increases significantly in inner-city neighborhoods. A large part of the decline in marriage rates is traceable to male joblessness and extraordinary poverty levels. The welfare system encourages female-headed households by providing financial support to unmarried mothers. The upshot: Juveniles from single-parent families have a greater chance of being involved in crime--especially murder and robbery.

Young criminals are devastating many inner-city communities, and throwing them into jail for short periods only seems to make things worse in the long run. When they return to their communities, they bring back the violent ethics of the cell block. Drugs, violent crime, and prisons are a part of everyday life. "If you haven't been arrested, you haven't gone through a rite of passage," says Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor at Florida International University.

FEW ROLE MODELS. The ecology of crime isolates inner-city communities in other ways. Few entrepreneurs open businesses in high-crime districts, where they can easily become murder or robbery victims. Middle-class blacks have fled for safer streets, too. In racially segregated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, young people are less exposed to the work ethic, and informal networks of church and community groups are being drained of their most prominent middle-class members.

To make even a dent in the violence will require policies ranging from family support networks to more police. Most important, there must be jobs to compete with the lure of crime. Without jobs, high levels of violence in America's cities will continue, along with disproportionate black incarceration--and unimaginable suffering.Christopher Farrell in New York, with bureau reports

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