The recent unrest in Baltimore raises complex and confounding questions, and in response many people have attempted to define the problem solely in terms of insurgent American racism and violent police behavior.
But that is a gross oversimplification. America is not reverting to earlier racist patterns, and calling for a national conversation on race is a cliché that evades the real problem we now face: on one hand, a vicious tangle of concentrated poverty, disconnected youth and a culture of violence among a small but destructive minority in the inner cities; and, on the other hand, of out-of-control law-enforcement practices abetted by a police culture that prioritizes racial profiling and violent constraint.
First, we need a more realistic understanding of America’s inner cities. They are socially and culturally heterogeneous, and a great majority of residents are law-abiding, God-fearing and often socially conservative.
According to recent surveys, between 20 and 25 percent of their permanent residents are middle class; roughly 60 percent are solidly working class or working poor who labor incredibly hard, advocate fundamental American values and aspire to the American dream for their children. Their youth share their parents’ values, expend considerable social energy avoiding the violence around them and consume far fewer drugs than their white working- and middle-class counterparts, despite their disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates.
In all inner-city neighborhoods, however, there is a problem minority that varies between about 12.1 percent (in San Diego, for example) and 28 percent (in Phoenix) that comes largely from the disconnected youth between ages 16 and 24. Most are not in school and are chronically out of work, though their numbers are supplemented by working- and middle-class dropouts. With few skills and a contempt for low-wage jobs, they subsist through the underground economy of illicit trading and crime. Many belong to gangs.
Their street or thug culture is real, with a configuration of norms, values and habits that are, disturbingly, rooted in a ghetto brand of core American mainstream values: hypermasculinity, the aggressive assertion and defense of respect, extreme individualism, materialism and a reverence for the gun, all inflected with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life.
Such street culture is simply the black urban version of one of America’s most iconic traditions: the Wild West. America’s first gangsta thugs were Billy the Kid and Jesse James. In the youth thug cultures of both the Wild West and the inner cities, America sees inverted images of its own most iconic values, one through rose-tinted glass, the other through a glass, darkly.
While there is some continuity between the old Western and thug cultures learned through extensive exposure to the media, that of the urban streets originated more in reaction to the long centuries of institutionalized violence against blacks during slavery and Jim Crow. The historian Roger Lane has traced the roots of Philadelphia’s black “criminal subculture” all the way back to the mid-1800s; W. E. B. Du Bois found it thoroughly entrenched in his own study of Philadelphia in the 1890s.
This culture is reinforced by contemporary conditions like poverty, racial discrimination, chronic unemployment, single parenting and a chemically toxic, neurologically injurious environment, like the lead paint that poisoned Freddie Gray.
Its intersection with overly aggressive law enforcement was not random or inevitable, but rooted in a historical irony. As the political scientist Michael Javen Fortner documents in his forthcoming work “Black Silent Majority,” when Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York introduced draconian new drug laws in the early 1970s to combat the increasingly violent street life of New York City, he did so with the full support of black leaders, who felt they had no choice — their lives and communities were being destroyed by the minority street gangs and drug addicts.
But it was not long before the dark side of this intervention emerged: Soon all black youth, not just the delinquent minority, were being profiled as criminals, all ghetto residents were being viewed and treated with disrespect and, increasingly, police tactics relied on the use of violence as a first resort.
And yet it didn’t work, at least in one important respect: Although the black homicide rate has declined substantially, it still remains catastrophic, with blacks being murdered at eight times the national rate — and, among teens, it has been rising again since 2002.
In tackling the present crisis, it is thus a clear mistake to focus only on police brutality, and it is fatuous to attribute it all to white racism. Black policemen were involved in both the South Carolina and Baltimore killings. Coming from the inner-city majority terrorized by the thug culture minority, they are, sadly, as likely to be brutal in their policing as white officers.
We see this in stark detail in the chronic violence of New York’s Rikers Island correction officers, the leadership and majority of whom are black. We see it also in the maternal rage of Toya Graham, the Baltimore single mom whose abusive reprimand of her son, a video of which quickly went viral, reflects both her fear of losing him to the street and her desperate, though counterproductive, mode of rearing her fatherless son.
WHAT is to be done? On the police side of the crisis, there should be immediate implementation of the sensible recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, including more community policing; making the use of violence a last resort; greater transparency and independent investigation of all police killings; an end to racial profiling; the use of body cameras; reduced use of the police in school disputes; and fundamental changes in officer training aimed at greater knowledge of, and respect for, inner-city neighborhoods.
Accompanying this should be a drastic reduction in the youth incarceration rate, which President Obama can make a dent in immediately by pardoning the many thousands of nonviolent youths who have been unfairly imprisoned and whose incarceration merely increases their likelihood of becoming violent.
In regard to black youth, the government must begin the chemical detoxification of ghetto neighborhoods in light of the now well-documented relation between toxic exposure and youth criminality. Further, there should be an immediate scaling up of the many federal and state programs for children and youth that have been shown to work: child care from the prenatal to pre-K stages, such as Head Start and the nurse-family partnership program; after-school programs to keep boys from the lure of the street and to provide educational enrichment as well as badly needed male role models; community-based programs that focus on enhancing life skills and providing short-term, entry-level employment; and continued expansion of successful charter school systems.
The president’s My Brother’s Keeper program, now a year old, is an excellent and timely initiative that has already begun the coordination and upscaling of such successful programs, as well as the integration of the private sector in their development.
And finally, there is one long-term, fundamental change that can come only from within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women, which now stands at 72 percent. Its consequences are grim: greatly increased risk of prolonged poverty, child abuse, educational failure and youth delinquency and violence, especially among boys, whose main reason for joining gangs is to find a family and male role models.
As one gang member told an interviewer working for the sociologist Deanna Wilkinson: “I grew up as looking for somebody to love me in the streets. You know, my mother was always working, my father used to be doing his thing. So I was by myself. I’m here looking for some love. I ain’t got nobody to give me love, so I went to the streets to find love.”
Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the editor, with Ethan Fosse, of “The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.”