This summer, we moved our musician son to Clarksdale, a small town in the north Mississippi Delta, famous for its blues lore. Sam Cooke was born here; Bessie Smith died here; the Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old train-depot warehouse, draws blues fans from around the world. But Clarksdale is also a poor town with a big crime problem. Robberies and home invasions are grim facts of daily life; there’s the occasional murder, too. A week spent here helping my son settle in underscored for me the problems good people face in bad neighborhoods, and just how wrong the liberal notion is that improving the economy is how to cut crime. It’s just the other way around.
“There are basically two sides of town,” a black cop warns me in front of the police station. Once, such a statement would have had an obvious racial connotation in Clarksdale. But the officer makes clear he’s not referring to race—nor would that make much sense in a town where the mayor and 68 percent of the population are black. “The working people,” he says, “live on one side, the thugs on the other.” A Hispanic officer with him nods agreement. The thugs tend to pay uninvited visits to the homes of the working families.
The police chief has publicly complained that the 26 officers he can put on the street for this town of 21,000 aren’t enough to bring crime under control. And so the cops gave my son and me some crime-stopping tips. One suggestion, seemingly small, illumined much: we shouldn’t leave any boxes from new purchases out on the curb for trash collection. “If you leave that TV box out there,” the Hispanic cop said, “it’s just an advertisement.” We crushed all the boxes we’d accumulated from purchases at the Wal-Mart on Highway 61 and threw them into a motel dumpster.
So it was that our middle-class family found itself pulled into the world of the working poor, where crime can be a palpable, daily threat. My son had overheard some women routinely discussing what kinds of guns they owned. Signing up for a library card, we learned how the librarians use a “buddy system” when they leave for the night, calling to tell one another that they’ve made it home safely. One letter in the local paper expresses the fear for “my children’s and grandchild’s safety”—a fear I now share.
But crime here is much more than a physical threat, terrible as that may be. It’s also a social corrosive. If one can’t even leave boxes on a curbside because it’s an open invitation to thieves, then one might think twice about buying that new TV. And if you can’t accumulate things, confident that someone’s not going to steal them, you might conclude that it’s pointless to work or to save at all. Civil society breaks down, and you’re left with something like Hobbes’s state of nature, where “there is no place for Industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain.”
Crime imposes a heavy economic tax on everyday transactions, too. Both renter’s and car insurance are wildly expensive. Then there’s the cost in lost time of always needing to sign for deliveries, rather than letting UPS leave the package at the door, where thieves might pinch it. Not a big concern for an 18-year-old with no dependents who’s here to play the blues, but surely consequential for his landscaper neighbor, working hard to support his family.
Crime ultimately weakens the capacity of Clarksdale—struggling to make the transition from a shrinking cotton economy to something with greater promise—to renew itself. The newspaper, recounting the city’s latest crime wave—two young men shot dead and a middle-aged woman robbed and raped in her home—editorialized that “restoring order on city streets and protecting the citizenry will require a major financial commitment on the part of city government.” But to hire more cops, the paper noted, the town would need to take drastic steps, slashing its budget for street repairs and trash pickups, and scaling back its investment in a municipal auditorium. Crime prevents the city from using its tax money in ways that might make it attractive to new residents and investors.
Recently, the New York Times faulted Rudy Giuliani for giving little credit in his new memoir “to the role the booming economy must have played in the city’s impressive reduction in crime, ascribing his greatest successes to his crime-fighting strategies.” A short visit to my son’s new home shows how deeply such thinking confuses cause and effect.