The New York Times has been furiously penning policy briefs to the Obama administration. A recent editorial on black crime compresses within a few hundred words decades of failed thinking on public safety. If the president-elect follows its hoary prescriptions, he will be guaranteed to waste taxpayer money without having the slightest effect on crime.
A new study of homicide among young black males prompted this latest editorial. James Alan Fox and Marc Swatt of Northeastern University found that the number of homicides committed by black males under the age of 18 rose 43 percent between 2002 and 2007, while the number of gun homicides by this same group rose 47 percent. Homicides by white youth during that period decreased slightly. But more significant were the different homicide rates that the report calculated, which no news story dared to divulge. Whereas the reports graph for white homicides over the last 30 years plots the rate in increments of 10, the black rate is demarcated at intervals of 100. The highest homicide rate for whites over the last three decades was 32 homicides committed per 100,000 males between the ages of 18 and 24 (reached in 1991), whereas the highest homicide rate for blacks was approximately 320 homicides per 100,000 males between the ages of 18 and 24 (reached in 1993).
Even this apparent ten-to-one disparity between black and white homicide rates doesnt tell the full story. Fox and Swatt include Hispanic homicides in the white rate, though they do not disclose that they are doing so (both the inclusion and the silence about it follow FBI practice). Hispanic crime rates are between three and four times that of whitesmeaning that if one excluded the Hispanic homicides from the white rate, the black-white differential would be even larger than ten to one.
The Times responds to the report with the key strategies of liberal apologetics. Strategy Number One: strip moral agency from favored victim groups. Bad things happen to favored victim groups because of forces outside their control; good things also happen to favored victim groups because of outside forcesabove all, wise government programs. Any expectation that members of a favored victim group can take responsibility for their lives must be expunged. Strategy Number Two: Never let the following controversial and dangerous word enter a discussion of the underclassmarriage.
The editorial initially conceals the Northeastern studys findings. The report, it writes, suggests that violent crime among young people may be rising; then, as if in a stray afterthought, the editorial adds that the study also shows that the murder rate for black teenagers has climbed noticeably since 2000 while the rate for young whites has scarcely changed on the whole and, in some places, has actually declined. That findingthe rising juvenile black homicide rateis the studys actual import, of course. But the Times would rather contradict itself than lead with the politically incorrect truth.
Such evasions are trivial, however, compared with the misleading information that the Times pumps out about the causes of, and effective responses to, crime. If the country has learned anything about street gangs, it is that police dragnetshauling large numbers of nonviolent young people off to jail, along with the troublemakerstend to make the problem worse, not better, the editorial observes. But dragnets to haul large numbers of nonviolent young people off to jail arent official policy anywhere. The warning is a red herring, introduced merely to create a contrast between mean-spirited and shortsighted police action and the wonderful social-services programs that the Times is about to recommend.
Having conveyed the impression of widespread heavy-handed police tactics, the Times then issues its preferred anticrime policies: Public policy should discourage young people from joining gangs in the first place by keeping them in school, getting them jobs and giving them community-based counseling and social service programs. Note the transferred moral agency. Policy should keep young people in school. How, exactly, is policy to do that? Young people keep themselves in school by not dropping out or by not engaging in the behaviors that, in rare cases, get them expelled. The only way that policy might have a greater effect on whether the students stay in school would be to declare that nothing is grounds for expulsion. But even such a prospective amnesty for violence wouldnt keep students in school who decide to drop out.
The Timess next antigang prescriptiongetting them jobsis in theory more within the capacity of policy. Government can get intending or actual gangbangers jobs, but they dont necessarily take or keep them. Few teenagers from any background possess the self-discipline and reliability that employers seek; teens growing up in chaotic home environments are even less likely to have developed a work ethic (which isnt to say that many inner-city teens arent courteous and enthusiastic workers). It would be a great thing, of course, if a booming economy offered a job to every teenager who sought one. But the biggest barrier to the employment of crime-prone inner-city youth isnt lack of real or even make-work jobs; rather, its their own willingness to show up every day on time and accept authority.
As for the editorials final prescription: there is not a single violence-plagued city that has not been administering community-based counseling and social service programs for decades, to virtually no effect. Failed foundation- and government-subsidized youth programs litter the philanthropic landscape; no social service program has emerged from that decades-long experimentation as the antidote to social breakdown.
The Timess explanation for crime is as fanciful as its proposed solutions. It sees gang violence as driven in significant measure by the economy: The economic crisis has clearly created the conditions for more crime and more gangsamong hopeless, jobless young men in the inner cities. The claim that crime results from a bad economy has limited empirical backing in general, but it is particularly ludicrous applied to juvenile violence. It is not the collapse of consumer lending that induces a 16-year-old to shoot a rival who disses his girlfriend; it is a failure of self-control and a distorted understanding of self-worth. The pathologies of gang culture have persisted throughout economic booms and recessions. The black youth homicide rate rose 79 percent in San Francisco, 87 percent in Phoenix, and 139 percent in Houston from 2000 and 2001 to 2006 and 2007, while those cities were experiencing the economic surge of the early 2000s. The gangbangers in inner cities may be hopeless and jobless, as the Times puts it, but the reason is the same lack of moral capital that produces their violence in the first place.
In the Timess view, prison is something that just happens to black males in our society. Once these young men become entangled in the criminal justice system, the Times writes, they are typically marginalized and shut out of the job market for life. Never mind that you actually have to commit a crime before the criminal justice system entangles you. And while it is unquestionably harder for someone with a criminal record to find a job, an ex-felons work habits play as important a role as his criminal past in determining whether he permanently enters the workforce after serving time.
Liberal policymakers and pundits have spilled buckets of ink over the years promoting social-service programs as the solution to crime, yetlike the Timess recent editorialthose opinion-setters cannot squeeze out one word about the most effective anticrime (and antipoverty) strategy: marriage. The marriage imperative civilizes boys. By contrast, in a world where it is unusual for a man to marry the mother of his children, boys fail to learn the most basic lesson of personal responsibility: you are responsible for your children. Freed of the social expectation that they will have to provide a stable home for their offspring, boys have little incentive to restrain their impulses and develop bourgeois habits. In 2005, the national black illegitimacy rate was 70 percent, and it approached 90 percent in many inner cities (compared with a white illegitimacy rate of 25 percent, and as low as 6 percent in some urban areas, like the District of Columbia). The disappearance of marriage from the black community is a social cataclysm.
Some highly structured, values-based youth programs, like the Boy Scouts, can provide boys a surrogate for the paternal authority that they lack at home; society is right to support these lifelines. But they cannot possibly bring crime down significantly among blacks in the absence of a cultural shift toward marriage. True, no one knows yet how to revive marriage in the black community. But given the imperative of doing so, you would think that somewhere in the flood of recommendations for more useless government social programs, a little space could be reserved for promoting the idea of a marriage movement.
Policing is nearly as taboo a solution to crime as marriage. The Times editorial makes a desultory reference to more financing for local police, but arguesagainst all evidencethat programs aimed at providing jobs and social services are far more important. Even that wan half-endorsement must have cost the Times considerable anguish. The papers real attitude toward the police was hilariously on display in an article on the New York Police Department published less than a week after its editorial. Titled POLICE POLISH IMAGE, BUT CONCERNS PERSIST: IN POST 9/11 NEW YORK, PROTEST IS MUTED AS CRIME RATE STAYS LOW, the article drew on the second of the two story lines that make up the entire repertoire of the Timess thinking about the police. This second story lineWhy isnt there more protest against racist police tactics?gets trotted out when circumstances militate against the preferred narrative: Hooray! Protest mounts over racist police tactics!
Ideally, president-elect Obama would tear up the liberal playbook on crime that is so expertly summarized in the Timess pronouncements. Obamas political affiliations make that course unlikely. But if he pushed back against the Timess economic determinism and stressed that people from any economic background have the capacity and duty to reject a life of violence, if he called on fathers to take responsibility for their children (as he has done in the past), he would start in motion a set of changes that could bring greater peace to black communities.