COLUMN

Bill Clinton’s new headache: urban decay

DIANE FRANCIS February 8 1993
COLUMN

Bill Clinton’s new headache: urban decay

DIANE FRANCIS February 8 1993

Bill Clinton’s new headache: urban decay

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

A report last year by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives dropped a racial bombshell—it found that 42 per cent of young black men in Washington, D.C., were in jail, on bail, on parole, probation or wanted for arrest. Even worse was the fact that 56 per cent of Baltimore’s black males between 18 and 35 years of age were also under some form of criminal justice restriction. Center spokesman Jerome Miller said that other U.S. cities were being studied, but there was little reason to believe that the percentages were any different. ‘We’re also looking at Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago, and while the studies are not complete, initial figures suggest these are very much in line—somewhere between 45 per cent and 55 per cent. And all indications are that the trend is up.”

Of course, it should be noted that crime is found among all ethnic and racial groups in the United States, and also that the lion’s share of the reported crimes were nonviolent or drug-related. Only eight per cent of the people were in trouble for violent crimes. Still, the Center’s report reveals that the biggest challenge for President Bill Clinton may not be economics so much as dealing with the sociology of America’s inner cities. Clearly, America’s cities continue to be hope less places where drug use and drug dealing are so pervasive that they may have already become an acceptable, macho way of life. Not surprisingly, this alternative lifestyle within the bosom of American society explains the popularity of disturbing rap music and lyrics that celebrate criminal behavior. Some songs call for youths to perform antisocial acts or even, in Cop Killer by Ice-T, threaten to murder police officers. This, in turn, helps to further polarize society.

The Center’s report shows that 30 years after civil rights legislation gave blacks more opportunities, they still face huge problems. And as many turn to drugs and crime, there

U.S. cities continue to be hopeless places where drug use and dealing are so pervasive that they may have become an acceptable way of life

is enhanced fear and resentment by whites who segregate themselves into safe suburbs. Meanwhile, cities are left decaying and inner-city residents are subjected to violent wars among drug lords, ethnic groups and teenage gangs.

Last year’s Los Angeles riot was triggered by a white jury’s unbelievable acquittal of four white policemen videotaped brutally beating a black man. This became an excuse for days of looting and mayhem by angry youths, mostly black and Hispanic, that resulted in 60 deaths. Months later, and after $7.6 billion in estimated damages, the city is more divided than ever, as voters refuse to beef up police forces even though they are so understaffed that they take hours to respond to burglaries or other property crimes.

People fear that the city may once again fall victim to riots this year if a retrial of the four policemen results again in acquittals. Likewise, a trial to be held into the beating by four black men of white truck driver Reginald Denny—also captured on video—will raise racial temperatures if blacks get tougher sentences than the policemen.

William Raspberry, a well-respected black journalist, wrote a recent column about the Center’s report, noting inner-city criminality.

He pointed out that the Center’s findings have “disastrous implications,” especially for crime-free black peers. “It leads many to the safe assumption that all young black men are criminals,” he wrote, adding that “the accounts of automatic weapons shootouts and turf wars and drive-by killings are not merely stories made up by racists to make African Americans look bad. They happen.”

The result is heightened vigilance of black men. Private detectives routinely follow them in stores as potential shoplifters, and police are undoubtedly more zealous in terms of following and searching black men than white men. Raspberry writes that they also probably receive harsher treatment in terms of sentencing.

That is why, he goes on, these crime statistics have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. More searches mean more arrests mean more statistics, even though the incidence of drug use and trafficking among whites is proportionately greater. What’s also unfortunate, Raspberry adds, is that once a person has a criminal record, he or she is likely to become handcuffed to criminality forever. Not only are prisons ideal schools for scoundrels— who have high recidivism rates—but employers are reluctant to hire anyone who has had a brush with the law. Being unemployed for past transgressions leads to future lawbreaking because crime may become the individual’s only way to make a living.

The U.S. solution in the 1980s was to crack down. During that decade, federal and state governments spent $47 billion, doubling the number of prison beds to 625,000. “But that hasn’t worked,” noted Business Week in a recent special issue on social challenges facing the United States. “Ranks of prisoners, including those in local jails, rose 138 per cent in the 1980s to 747,000. But violent crime still rose 35 per cent.”

Equally expensive is the war against drugs, which costs $15 billion a year, roughly equivalent to the size of New Brunswick’s entire economy. Two-thirds of this money is spent on enforcement in a doomed attempt to choke supply, with the rest spent on education and treatment. The lack of success in stemming the problem means future costs will be horrendous as an estimated 330,000 addicts are now HIV-positive and may become infected with AIDS. They will eventually require treatment from governments. Worse yet, an estimated 550,000 “crack babies” are born every year who have a much greater tendency to exhibit physical and developmental impairments.

All of which points out that the White House’s biggest problem is not to meet Japan’s trade challenge or to keep Saddam Hussein in line. Its biggest challenges are within its borders. Without massive intervention—a sort of Marshall Plan to help inner-city residents—it is clear our neighbor will continue to unsuccessfully wage urban warfare against a growing underclass of disenfranchised and violent people. The costs, in human tragedy and dollars, are unsustainable.