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Posted by on May 5, 2015 in African-Americans, Crime, Featured, Politics | 4 comments

A broken approach to young black men

WASHINGTON — The first two steps toward uplifting young black men are simple: Stop killing them and stop locking them in prison for nonviolent offenses.

Subsequent steps are harder, but no real progress can be made until the basics of life and liberty are dealt with. If anything positive is to come of Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore rioting that ensued, let it be a new and clear-eyed focus on these fundamental issues of daily life for millions of Americans.

Central to the crisis is “zero-tolerance” or “broken windows” policing, which basically involves cracking down on minor offenses in the hope of reducing major crime as well. Whether this strategy works is the subject of two arguments whose right answers can only be inferred, not proved.

The first involves the contention that police should be more aggressive in patrolling inner-city minority communities because that’s where the criminals are. Those who hold this view might point to Gray’s history of drug arrests. They might argue that the police officers were justified in thinking Gray must have been guilty of something, especially when he ran — and that if he had nothing to hide, he should have simply stayed put.

But this overlooks a universal phenomenon: We find things where we look for them.

If police concentrate their patrols in a certain area and assume every young man they see is a potential or probable criminal, they will conduct more searches — and make more arrests. Which means a high percentage of young men in that neighborhood will have police records. Which, in turn, provides a statistical justification for continued hyper-aggressive police tactics.

In New York, where a federal judge ruled then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy unconstitutional, an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 85 percent of “stops” in 2012 involved African-Americans or Hispanics — who make up just half the population. The No. 1 goal of the practice, city officials said, was to get illegal weapons off the streets. But minorities were found to be carrying weapons just 2 percent of the time, while 4 percent of whites who were stopped and frisked had weapons.

This doesn’t mean the NYPD should have deployed all its resources to the Upper East Side. What it strongly suggests is that officers, when deciding whether to stop and frisk whites, exercised greater discretion. It suggests police were more likely to single out whites who genuinely had something to hide, while they were more likely to detain African-Americans and Hispanics indiscriminately.

The second argument about aggressive policing is about impact: The advent of “broken windows” has coincided with a dramatic decline in violent crime across the nation.

Did one lead to the other? It is easy to show a correlation but impossible to prove causality. It is not as if police departments were ignoring inner-city communities before the practice of rousting suspects on drug corners was known by a fancy buzzword. And violent crime has also fallen sharply in many communities that either abandoned zero-tolerance policing or never adopted it.

Has crime fallen because so many hard-core criminals are in prison? Believe me, my heart does not bleed for any murderer, armed robber or rapist who is behind bars. But thousands of black men are in prison for possessing or selling marijuana, a drug that is now legal in the nation’s capital. Blacks and whites smoke pot at equal rates, but African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for doing so.

In the larger war on drugs, the victims have been black and brown. The American Civil Liberties Union reported last year that African-Americans facing drug charges are imprisoned at a rate 10 times that of whites — and that sentences for black men average nearly 20 percent longer than those for white men. Punishment for possessing or selling crack cocaine remains vastly greater than for an identical quantity of the upscale powder variety.

Back to Freddie Gray and Baltimore: At 25, without education, employment or immediate prospects, he was hardly what anyone would call a pillar of the community. But neither was he any sort of menace to society. Perhaps some intervention would have gotten his life on track, perhaps not. We’ll never know.

When he saw police, he ran. Was that illogical? The officers chased him down, pinned him in a folded position “like origami,” according to a witness, and tossed him into a police wagon. Was that necessary?

The answer to both questions is no. Therein lies the problem.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected] (c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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  • archangel

    i like what i heard the Prez say tonight, and I truly value GR, and maybe his admons will help, but Prez said, and I agree, need to have early childhood ed and etc. And unwavering daily parental involvement with each child. That means many things, some which will be really hard to find a way through for caregiving a child is truly endless and watching over and carrying thither and yon, a full time job, just in terms of food and cleanliness and homework and loving up time, alone. By the time we are talking about ‘young men’ of any group … not sure that is the entry point when one is planning that much be replaced with better in the next gen that is infant right now. I have great faith in the elders.. I would like them to run the show. I feel those who are great souls and honest and wise would be able to fulfill whatever mandate they set. I see they are already on it, but they would need outside support too.

    And on another topic entirely but related in terms of caregivers… there has to be help for caregivers who give up work, have to, in order to care for indigent ill aged parents, brothers, sisters, children, mates. The needs are so great there.

    • JSpencer

      From your lips to god’s ears Dr. E…

  • Truly all of this is systemic…
    Recently saw a group of African American teens on a Saturday night in what is considered the cultural center of our city…Watched 20 African American teenagers running down the street with some of them pausing long enough to do the ” “put ‘em in a coffin” ….(Jump up, cross your arms, slam your body into the hood of a stranger’s car)…Police came which began the cat and mouse scurry…There was no evidence of police brutality…Have continued to reflect on seeing the raw anger, acting out, defiance as well as the frustration and double bind of the police that evening…They sought containment in the midst of chaos…Could of so easily turned tragic…

    Watched the youth in our culture… Instead of focusing on what they are doing, it is more sane to ask; What is our shadow in which these youth are dancing out-large for us? Very often the young sense our greatest shadows and defiantly dance them into the spotlight… They become the identified troublemakers and the rest of the culture can continue on with its deep systemic sleep of dysfunction and hypocrisy….

    One of the shadows i see in the “put ’em in a coffin” which is even more impacting (not as tragic but impacting to our Nation) than the death of African American young men through police violence is what we saw so clearly the day after President Obama came into office… It could of been a time of new beginning in race relations… Our Nation could of taken the election of President Obama as a indication of conscious evolving for the Nation and blew its breath on the embers for success, respect, and goodwill for the potential in all individuals beyond the contractions of race with extension in to inclusiveness for all…

    Instead Boehner came out the day afterwards with the war cry towards anything that Obama might aspire to do… “Put ‘em in a coffin” politically was the first utterance, and it has been ongoing for the past 7 years…On any given day political leaders shame and condemn the poor and refuse to enact programs to that would be supportive of these kids getting a leg up..Instead they pull out the dog whistles and give Obama his daily; ” Put ’em in the coffin’ politically…
    (Body slam: The ‘back’ slams the car… Slam Obama without taking upfront responsibility, they make it about emotional issues where the game is just positioning for political power..
    Crossed arms; All is done with the ‘sweet repose’ of fundamental Christianity as if that act alone could lay it all to rest..
    Crashing the hood and the front window: Prohibits the vehicle from being able to be driven down towards a greater destination… )

    How can this issue be effectively worked with at the Cops vs. Young African American kids? Our entire political system has devolved to war strategy that purposely divides classes, races, and gender in order for the politician to obtain office and gather the spoils of war…

    We have set these kids up to be the identified ‘thugs’… Where are the real thugs is a more interesting question? And why do we allow?

  • Rcoutme

    Since the US has a floating currency, it has no reason to “borrow” money. This means that the taxes have the effects of 1) giving the money value (you need it to pay your taxes) and 2) curbing inflation (money going back to the federal government is taken out of circulation).

    This gives our society a chance to create a golden age. We can employ as many citizens as want jobs (by offering a wage/benefits package to anyone willing to work). The jobs could entail items that are currently needed but unfunded, such as cleaning up parks and woodlands, assisting elderly and disabled people with simple chores (cooking, cleaning, etc.), providing hospitals with extra hands to help with (relatively speaking) non-medical chores.

    It also could be used to allow under and unemployed people (who qualify in whatever way is needed and helpful) to create theatrical events that would be open to the public. Concerts, plays, and other forms of performance art could be funded. Although this would open up a means of waste and fraud, such things could (and SHOULD) be investigated and put right.

    This would allow one of the most insidious problems facing young men to be virtually eliminated: unemployment.

    Jus’ sayin’

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