Forget about blame: black-on-black crime begs for solutions

January 11, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The quote is so shocking, so unlikely, so devastating that it seemed as if it couldn't possibly be accurate.

It is, though. And the speaker meant it just the way it sounds:

"There is nothing more painful to me at this stage of my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking robbery, then look and see somebody white and feel relieved."

Jesse Jackson said those words.

I couldn't believe it either. This is the world turned upside down. And that's the point, I guess.

It was also the point of the much-publicized conference last weekend in Washington put together by Jackson to discuss the subject of black-on-black crime. Dozens of black leaders showed up.

And while many of the speakers talked about governmental responsibility, many others talked about local and individual responsibility.

This comes hard.

African-Americans are used to criticism -- usually from the white community. There's criticism of gangsta rap and black English and welfare mothers and, well, you know the rest. For many blacks, it must sometimes feel like self-criticism is redundant.

That was the basis of Jackson's I-am-somebody crusade of an earlier time when low self-esteem among children was seen as a greater problem than high-caliber weaponry.

But now something else is going on. You can quantify it. Blacks make up 12 percent of the American population and 50 percent of the homicide victims.

As we know, most of the black victims are killed by other blacks. More blacks, Jackson often points out, are killed by blacks in a single year than were ever lynched by whites.

And the truth is, many whites really aren't that concerned, unless it's white people getting killed. Those are the murders that make the headlines -- when the victims are white or when they're children. Otherwise, it seems it's just murder as usual.

That's because, more than ever, our society has broken into small pockets of self-interest. We are divided by age, race, gender, class, neighborhood. There's hardly an issue where these divisions don't come into play.

Check how interest in Social Security breaks down according to age. Parents are more interested in paying for public education than those without children. Gay activists demand more AIDS research. Women want more breast-cancer research. The list is endless.

Crime is the one area where everyone is concerned -- but not necessarily in the same way.

In the suburbs and richer city neighborhoods, people are most worried about keeping crime out. You'll see a lot of support there for more prisons and longer sentences and reduced paroles.

In the parts of the cities where crime is epidemic, people want safer neighborhoods and money to rebuild a collapsed infrastructure.

At the Washington conference, blacks talked to blacks about black problems and black solutions.

It's their own pocket of self-interest. They can't worry now about white perceptions or misperceptions. They can't worry about the many black success stories that don't get told or of the large black middle class that somehow escapes notice. They can't even worry about racism and its continuing toll.

Blacks know they have to rescue those black neighborhoods at risk because nobody else will or can.

Even though Bill Clinton will say he feels their pain, he can't produce much money to salve it. Besides, the consensus is that social-welfare programs have failed. Even the ones that haven't failed find trouble getting funded.

Who's at fault? The answer is easy: It doesn't matter.

All that matters now is finding solutions.

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