The killing of Trayvon Martin has focused the attention of conservatives on the high rate of homicides in urban communities, but only as a means of deflecting attention away from George Zimmerman. Right-wing commentators have suddenly become deeply concerned with black-on-black street killings, asking why we’re being “distracted” by Martin. This ignores the obvious: everyone knows who Trayvon’s killer is, and he has yet to be arrested.
Conservatives peddling this line are trying to suggest that young blacks are intrinsically equipped to fail and to damage one another and that blacks don’t care when young blacks are done in by other blacks. All of this is simply untrue and mean-spirited.
As Randall Robinson wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with us, something was done to us.”
That “something” was more than 300 years of the most inhumane and brutal form of slavery ever perpetrated by one group of human beings on another. And the remnants of those dark centuries still haunt blacks here in America in the form of abject poverty, low achievement, and endemic violence in poor communities. While neither the current generation of whites nor their parents or grandparents participated in the brutality perpetrated by their more-distant ancestors, many continue to benefit from its effects, and not nearly enough have engaged in any efforts to ameliorate the lingering effects of slavery. A debt is owed to blacks, even if it’s uncollectible and never paid.
No group of people ever willingly allows its young people to devour themselves as senselessly as young black males are currently doing in America. These youths are drowning in a perfect storm of neglect, poverty, and mindless violence. If there were an easy solution to the high rate of violence among young men of color, the elders of the black community, criminologists, and social scientists would have “solved” the problem decades ago.
But if pointed barbs from small-minded conservative commentators are what it takes to spur the country into action, then so be it. The point is to solve the problem and not play petty politics with young black lives.
Some potential short-term solutions: In more enlightened countries, poor people are paid to see doctors, because it’s cheaper to keep people from getting sick than to have to pay for emergency care once they are seriously ill. Other countries are experimenting with the idea of paying addicts to stay clean. Death is costly. So why not take the fundamentally conservative idea that people respond to marginal economic incentives and apply it to the intractable problem of black youth violence?
One potential answer is paying students for earning good grades. All parents capable of doing so already engage in the practice in one form or another, but parents without the financial wherewithal or resources cannot use this simple carrot-and-stick approach, which has achieved remarkable success in Brazil, where it’s a government policy, and some promising results in New York City, where a privately funded pilot program has tested the idea. I’ve had an educator tell me that he was “philosophically opposed” to paying kids to get good grades—so I suppose he expected children from disadvantaged backgrounds, where there’s no family tradition of education, to become good students because it’s the right thing to do.
Staying with money, adults need to understand that it’s tough being broke in an iPad world. Young blacks, like everyone else in our society, are bombarded with messages telling them what they absolutely need to have, and absent a legitimate method of acquiring such “things”—basic necessities of adolescence, if you stop and think about it—they will resort to illegitimate methods.
Petty drug dealers, attempting to make a few bucks in one of the few ways readily available to them in the ghetto, get shot when something goes awry over amounts of money so small it’s truly laughable, if not for the fact some kid died. Thus, paying students—even a small amount—can potentially make a huge difference in the inner-city crime rate. We cannot afford not to come up with the funds to do so on a broader scale.
In underclass urban communities, 29-year-old grandmothers are expected to help their teenaged children to successfully raise the next generation—and in most cases it quite simply can’t be done. The answer lies in programs similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone, where stable adults take young mothers by the hand and show them, step by step, day in and day out, how to raise their offspring. The mentoring is so intense that both the mother and child are being raised at the same instant. The success rate for such programs is well-documented, but the downside is such programs take time, political will, and an investment of capital (all of which we in America seem in short supply of). We can’t find the money to save children of the underclass, but we damn sure will find the money to lock them up and further disenfranchise them when they act out as adults.
Geoffrey Canada, the head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has been successful because of the large amounts of money he has been able to raise in wealthy New York City. If wealthy black entertainers, athletes, and businesspeople followed the example of “bad boy” football player Braylon Edwards, who established a charity to assist students in Cleveland (and has maintained his commitment to these kids even after he was traded), programs like Canada’s could spring up across the country—and the back of the beast of urban violence could be broken in one generation. I know that other blacks of means are doing some good with their wealth, but it’s simply not enough. How can they expect whites to shoulder the burden for the uplifting of the black race when so many blacks of means are stuck—like spoiled children—in the cult of celebrity? Perhaps Barack and Michelle Obama should have these folks to dinner at the White House after the election and do some serious arm twisting.