Jesse Jackson on crime

January 18, 1994

Jesse Jackson has been taking an unusual amount of heat from his fellow African-Americans recently because he has identified black-on-black crime as a major problem in poor communities. The reaction reminds us of the incredulity that greeted the little boy's observations concerning the emperor's new clothes. Isn't it obvious that blacks are the primary victims of crime in poor neighborhoods, and that the brunt of the suffering inflicted by black criminals is borne by other blacks?

In a society with a less troubled racial history than ours, these would be self-evident statements. Because criminality has so often been used in the past to paint all blacks in a negative light, however, frank discussion of the problem has always been an extremely touchy subject. Mr. Jackson has been accused of fueling racist stereotypes.

Yet one of Mr. Jackson's roles is that of iconoclast. And he has performed valuable service by jettisoning the taboo against black leaders talking about black-on-black crime. He knows that the "root causes" of much crime are to be found in poverty, broken families, hopelessness. And his audiences, who are overwhelmingly black, know he is not talking about them when he speaks of the "bad black brothers" who deal drugs, rob and kill. They just want help getting criminals off their streets.

Critics have lambasted Mr. Jackson's claim that black-on-black violence is the nation's "number one civil rights problem." They point out that black criminals don't target their victims because of their color but because they are vulnerable and close at hand. So how can such crimes possibly be considered a "civil rights" matter?

Yet when services -- including police protection -- in poor black neighborhoods are stretched to the breaking point, when good schools, businesses and jobs are virtually non-existent, when all the elements that make a community viable are lacking, surely that is a human rights issue.

Ironically, many of Mr. Jackson's detractors are the same people who subscribe to various theories of a massive white conspiracy to keep blacks down. Perhaps they fear his ideas may deprive them of a convenient scapegoat. Mr. Jackson, however, speaks to the concerns of all decent people, black and white, when he suggests the same moral force that sustained the civil rights movement of the 1960s must now be applied to task of ridding poor communities of lawlessness and terror. If that seems like a revolutionary message in the 1990s, it is only because it has the ring of truth.

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