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When the FBI released its latest annual crime report showing that violent crime is on the upswing in many big cities, a bevy of law enforcement, officials, and criminologists prayed that the report was just an aberrant blip on the crime chart.
There was good reason to hope that: murder rates have plunged in big cities during the past decade, and there was every expectation that things would stay that way.
The recent slaughter of five teens in New Orleans and a desperate plea from Mayor Ray Nagin to send in the National Guard to help patrol the streets shattered that hope. While the murder rate in big cities is still lower than it was a decade ago, the terrifying reality is that in New Orleans and other big cities, the victims and their killers are almost always young black males.
In the 25 years of homicide records from 1976 to 2002 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are six times more likely to be murdered than whites, and seven times more likely to kill than whites. They are far more likely to be gunned down over gang or drug disputes. New Orleans police speculate that that was the reason the five teens were killed.
President Bush recognized that big city violence was a crisis problem. In his State of the Union Address in 2005, he pledged to shell out $150 million to youth education and violence prevention programs. It was well intentioned, but it was still a far cry from what was needed to stem the gunplay on urban streets. And as has been the case with other Bush initiatives, unveiled with much public fanfare, the attack on urban violence has fizzled out due to lack of money and lack of will to push it through. But even if the money and will were there, that would not get at the cause of why so many young blacks kill each other.
More police, prosecutors, "three strikes" and mandatory sentencing laws, the death penalty, and the nearly one million blacks behind bars have done little to curb this carnage. Despite the pet theories of liberals and conservatives, blacks aren't killing each other because they are violent or crime-prone by nature, because they are poor and oppressed, or even because they are acting out the obscene violence they see and hear on TV, films, and in gangster-rap lyrics.
The violence results from a combustible blend of cultural and racial baggage many blacks carry. In the past, crimes committed by blacks against other blacks were often ignored or lightly punished. The implicit message was that black lives were expendable. It would be no surprise if the killer or killers of the New Orleans teens had a long, violent rap sheet but continued to roam the streets.
Many studies have confirmed that the punishment violent blacks receive when their victim is white is far more severe than if the victim is black. This perceived devaluation of black lives by racism has provoked disrespect for the law, and has forced many blacks to internalize anger and misplace aggression onto other blacks -- especially those that are perceived as weak or defenseless.
Far too many young black males have become especially adept at acting out their frustrations at white society's denial of their "manhood" by adopting an exaggerated "tough guy" role. They swagger, boast, curse, fight and commit violent, self-destructive acts. When many black males indulge their murderous impulses on other black males, they are often taking out their pent-up frustrations on those whom they perceive as helpless and hapless. This is a warped response to racism and deprivation, blocked opportunities, powerlessness and alienation.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that the other powerful ingredient in the deadly mix of black-on-black violence is the gang and drug plague. The resurgence of the drug trade in recent years and the flood of felons from prisons have made black gangs even bigger and more dangerous. Drug trafficking not only provided illicit profits, but also made gun play more widespread. Gang members used their arsenals to fend off attacks, protect their profits from predators, and settle scores with rivals. Broken homes, miserably failing inner city schools, and a chronic unemployment rate among young blacks -- which is double and triple that of white males in urban areas -- haven't helped matters.
Other than comedian Bill Cosby and some outraged local black leaders, mainstream civil rights figures haven't said or done much about the black carnage. The sight of the National Guard on New Orleans streets may be a temporary comfort to residents and city officials, but it's only that: temporary comfort.
An impassioned Mayor Nagin put it best: local residents and community groups must put their foot down, say enough is enough, and take back their streets. That's still the best way to stop the violence.