Government by people must work for people

WILEY A. HALL

December 17, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

Last of two parts.

The frustrating thing about the current epidemic of black on black crime is that it is happening now, at what might otherwise be regarded as black America's finest hour.

It was just one generation ago that the privileges and opportunities of the American mainstream were closed to most blacks by both law and custom.

But today, blacks have penetrated nearly every segment of society. The percentage of blacks graduating from high school is at an all-time high. The black middle class continues to expand. The black professional class has never been as broad or diverse as it is today. Black representation in government is greater now than ever. Black spending power, in the aggregate, is greater than that of several small nations.

By rights, television news programs such as "Sixty Minutes" and "Nightline" ought to be devoting entire programs to examining how and why blacks have been able to come so far so fast against such tremendous odds. Scholars ought to be studying the cultural values that have enabled black students to remain competitive even though many attend underprivileged schools. The managing techniques at black institutions ought to be held up as models for maintaining stability by stretching scant resources.

Instead, all achievement is overshadowed by the crime and the senseless, mindless, seemingly remorseless violence. Instead of celebrating, we are angry and frustrated; yes, and defensive, too, since black violence somehow seems to find its way into the news more often than anyone else's violence.

In one sense, of course, black on black crime is no different from any other crime. Black criminals do not seek out black victims because the victims are black. Most crimes are crimes of proximity and opportunity. Criminals of whatever color prey on the people closest to them.

But, as I reported Tuesday, black on black crime is real in the mind of the victim. Victims feel particularly betrayed because the civil rights movement of the past few decades has fostered a sense of brotherhood among blacks from all walks of life. And black crime victims are more likely than their white counterparts to live in economically fragile communities that can ill afford the .. far-reaching economic and psychological effects of crime.

There is one other important difference: When the black community seeks solutions, it is told not to turn to government for help.

Think about that for a second. Local government is the mechanism through which a community organizes its resources and focuses its collective will. Governments exist to serve. They have no other function. Most people who demand services from their governments are considered to be exercising their rights as citizens. Blacks, however, often are accused of whining, or of seeking handouts.

Thus, black communities find themselves trying to respond to the epidemic of violence on their streets by setting up shadow government agencies. They turn to groups such as the Nation of Islam to provide protection that police departments should be providing. They call for individuals to provide volunteer manpower, and businesses to provide supplies to help strengthen underprivileged schools.

Other effective responses to crime, such as agencies that can provide drug and alcohol treatment on demand, are woefully under-funded to begin with and also are being cut back by financially strapped governments.

These days you can find books and essays and scholarly works examining the phenomenon of black on black crime from virtually every angle except the obvious -- how we respond to it. So here is a common- sense solution: Let's respond to black on black crime the way we respond to white on white crime.

Let's try to prevent it by improving the schools; improving police service; improving drug and alcohol treatment facilities; improving employment opportunities; and by seeking to minimize the forces that pull families apart.

People may claim that crime is not a government problem but a people problem. But where I come from, people and government always were presumed to be synonymous -- and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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