Sunday, May 10, 2015
The Real Problem with America's Inner Cities: Note for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."
Orlando Patterson, New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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
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 middleclass 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 lowwage 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
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 rosetinted 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 mid1800s; 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
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 innercity 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
In regard to black youth, the government must begin the chemical
detoxification of ghetto neighborhoods in light of the now welldocumented
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;
afterschool 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
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
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