Monday, May 21, 2007

Urban right, pt 6: Why we need to be in on the debate

In the wake of the killing of Jasmine Owens and the disgusting failure of the intended target to cooperate with the police (McGee must be proud), I blogged about the difficult questions raised by a culture of criminal violence.

One thoughtful commentator pushes the argument that the problem is economic. He wrote "members of groups within society that perceive themselves to have meaningful opportunity to create better lives (and who see themselves as being included in the larger community) typically function more productively, refrain from the level of anti-social behavior we are talking about, and generally pursue better lives."

This is, of course, the traditional argument from the left. At root, the problem is economic. Give people what they need and the violence will stop. A recent letter to the Journal Sentinel made the same point; the writer arguing that maybe "we all" killed Jasmine Owens. Local blogger Michael J. Mathias of Pundit Nation argues for economics as well.

I have to admit that my intial reaction to these arguments is often less than civil. I have been hearing them for so long (I'm getting old here) and they are so beside the point. They have, over the fast 40 years, resulted in ineffectual policy and continued deterioration.

Perhaps that's unfair because there is a sense in which they are true. While I believe that the culture is now the larger problem, poverty did help to create that culture and it is poverty that makes its consequences so devastating.

But, however etiology might inform treatment, it doesn't control it. An infected wound might have been caused by a failure to clean it, but, once infection sets in, antibiotics are reguired. The solutions offered by my commenter - school breakfast, massive job training, smaller class sizes - haven't (and aren't going to) change anything unless the culture changes and unless people are free to go to job training or school breakfast without getting blown away

Unfortunately, I can't see a soft way to do this. Drugs are a problem and some people call for treatment rather than punishment. I have the greatest sympathy for people whose loved ones have drug and alcohol problems and can't get treatment, but the sad facts are 1)drug and alcohol abuse are often a symptom of culutural malaise, and 2)perhaps as a result, treatment doesn't work that well and, when it does, the success seems to be just as readily, if not primarily attributed to the patient's environment and outside support. Therapy can help, but it can't fill the holes in your life.

As I have said before, I am probably willing to spend more on anti-poverty programs than most conservatives. I am a Santorum and Brownback type of guy. But it won't help to spend that money unless the programs are designed to control urban violence now, encourage the recovery of a culture of marriage, inculcate traditional values (as opposed to the kind of multi-cultural divisiveness that we see too much of now), and create economic opportunities that are not "made" by the government because those will not last and will not be very robust.

I have to admit that I don't really know how to do that but, as I have blogged before, I think it is a discussion we need to spend more time on. The left keeps calling for things that won't work and, unfortunately, my cohorts seem better at diagnosis than prescription.


Anonymous said...

To simple dismiss the suggestions you recieved as rehashed, "economic" ideas is unfair.

Rather, they were public policy ideas that could a play a role in breaking a cultural cycle that views violence and disfunction and normal aspects of life and nurturing the basic ingredients for a culture of achievment and stability.

To throw one's hands up and say "Oh well, its the culture" is simply to declare one's disapproval. Its code for the refusal to actually do anything but condemn.

"Culture" and everything else, including economics, are not so divisible. Again, where people percieve that work will bring them better and stable lives, the "culture" tends to favor positive behavior and role-modeling.

Query: why is drug use less disruptive and destructive in White Fish Bay than in the Central City? Hint - its no answer to offer some general statement about the people having different "cultures" or views or family structures. The only real question is WHY it is that way.

Anonymous said...

The only things I can think of that would work are so draconian that no one (even myself) would endorse them.

John McAdams said...

People who say it's "economic hard times" and "lack of opportunity" need to explain why crime increased so much in the economic good times of the 60s.

People who say it's racism need to explain why before the civil right revolution, when blacks had objectively much less opportunity than now, the black family was largely intact.

Anonymous said...

It is not simply one problem--it is several problems! All of these--education, training, culture, gun control, tougher laws, drug and alcohol problems--all of these and more need to be addressed. It is Jasmine's generation that we need to address. There is not one single "cure" for the problems in the central city and these problems simply won't be solved overnight. Yes, a discussion should ensue, but then action needs to be taken. Where does one begin is a rhetorical question.

Rick Esenberg said...


I agree that it is a multi-faceted problem but, if it is necessary for people to perceive that work can lead them to a better life, the question becomes: why don't they see that today.

Folks on the left are apt to argue that they don't see it because there are no opportunities available. (see, e.g., Ehrenreich's book, Nickeled and Dimed) What has, I think, become increasingly embarassing to the left, is that this is unreservedly and demonstrably false.

If you do three things in the United States; finish high school, refrain from having children until you are married and defer marriage until you are 20, your chances of becoming poor are extremely small. Avoid problems with drugs and alcohol and they are even smaller.

That is, of course, not quite perfection and these three things will not guarantee a three bedroom home in the suburbs, but it is indisputable that life is not rigged against the inner city poor in such way that self destruction is a rationale or even, based on the economics alone, an understandable response.

Nor it seems to me is there such material deprivation in the inner city that opportunities cannot be siezed. By global and historical standards, to be poor in America is to live relatively well. (You needn't start in on the problems associated with relative deprivation. I get that and I'm not saying that it's good to be poor; only that it need not be paralyzing.)

My point is that there is something that is preventing the perception and grasping of these opportunities and the I think the answer is largely cultural.

By that I do not meaning any type of innate or even traditional black culture. Quite to the contrary, African-Americans have a long history of "getting over." I believe it is a culture of dependency and opposition which, to be honest, the larger society must take a great responsibility for.

But that responsibility doesn't rest as much in the failure to fund social programs as in its indulgence of all sorts of bad ideas that we now associate with the 60s.

So when we talk about spending money, I want it spent in a way that addresses that part of the problem.

So what is that prevents people from perceiving and grasping opportunity that is undeniably there?

Anonymous said...

No one is suggesting a simplistic "deprivation=crime" equation. Talking about "culture" as though it exists in isolation untouched by socio-economic realities is meaningless unless of course some fool wanted to argue that a specific culture is hardwired into the DNA of a particular group.

Rick, this talk about a culture of dependency ignores history. It assumes that folks have been meaningfully provided for in some way, i.e., have been rewarded for being anti-social or whatever you want to call it. That has never been true as a factual matter and it certainly hasn't been true in decades.

You ask why people do not currently see that work and playing by the rules leads to a better life when such things are crystal clear to a Mequon lawyer. That's kind of the point; for you and me, the notion that education and reasonably decent behavior led to success were not merely abstractions, we saw it happen in our lives and all around us.

First, I disupute that the opportunities are "undeniably" there for most folks, despite the occasional anecdote. Second, and more important, these folks don't percieve them to be there no matter how obvious it is to yuppies commentators, myself (and yourself) included.

The question should simply be: what policies will bring these opportunities - and a perception of these - home, in a way that will have folks believe that they are real.

One thing we know is that an almost exclusively punitive approach, the increased prosecution/incarceration we've seen for a full generation doesn't do the trick.

There needs to be concrete meaningful affirmative steps taken to bring opportunity to these neighborhoods in a way that is percievable. yes it costs money and yes we should only spend on what works.

But, the main focus here seems to be beating up on a cartoonish straw-man of an argument that the right thinks the left is making.

Quality education (even for kids with problems), easier access to jobs at decent wages, basic, accessible preventative health care, policing that is more open to cooperative efforts, positive activities that actually interest young people, etc. These are some of the core issues. And, we may have to wait a generation to see huge change.

You keep asking for ideas and all you really get is snide remarks on what rightwingerss tell us is the "left's" arguments. And, in fact that is the history of this issue; a bunch of folks condemn the problem, insist that others should behave differently, and then tear down any suggestion that we should do something concrete. And - nothing gets doen.

James Rowen said...

I think Rick's posts are quite useful. The debate is pretty substantive.

White people like come at this entire matter with a pretty profound experience deficit.

We're observers, and from a relatively privileged position to boot: that's not an apology - - just an expression of the reality of the situation.

So we're saying what we think, or guess at when it comes to grasping what it must be like to be be something we are not.

White opinion-makers and people generally of good will can support grassroots efforts that originate in the central city, from African-American organisations and leaders, within African-American community.

That's where the best, informed answers lie.

For people like me, it's a matter of listening first, then supporting proposals and ideas, then making proposals based on what I hear, not on what I think based on my own life experience.

Anonymous said...

Dear James;
Now I understand why I don’t understand. I’m white.

Anonymous said...

JP - its amazing you need this explained to you. Its not about skin color, its about experience and history. And, unfortunately, to some significant degree, in the US, differences in skin color often indicate dramatically different experiences and histories.

Much of the right's rhetoric on these issues is based simply on pretending not to understand this simple truism.

Anonymous said...

Having been born in an apartment bedroom (my parents could not afford a hospital) in the inner city (Milwaukee) and having lived there for my first 25 years, gave me good insight into the black experience.

The time has come to move differences due to color further down on the list of excuses.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you think anyone is using "color" as an "excuse" for anything is ample evidence that you have an axe to grind rather than a desire for meaningful discussion.