Black-on-black crime is not a problem of race



WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton observed Martin Luther King's birthday in a speech at Howard University here last week, he took the occasion to return to his campaign against the use of guns in street violence, saying it would be particularly wrenching to the slain civil rights leader to see how children are imperiled by it.

Before a predominantly black audience, Clinton spoke of the need for further racial conciliation and observed that "this is not a problem of race, it is a problem of the American family, and we had better get about solving it as a family."

But in cities with large black populations, the propensity among whites to associate street violence with blacks continues. What once was dismissed by many as simply code for racial bigotry has become a widespread concern that fear of blacks is warranted by the recent history of urban crime.

Perhaps inadvertently, Jesse Jackson gave credence to the view in November when he observed at Operation PUSH in Chicago that "there is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps, and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see someone white, and feel relieved."

This startling comment by the nation's most prominent black spokesman and fighter against racial bias opened the door to more straightforward discussions within the black community itself of the fear acknowledged by Jackson. Since then he has been a leader in efforts to confront not only that fear but the specific question of black-on-black violence.

Clinton, in a speech in Memphis in November, imagined Dr. King saying today: "I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment."

The new willingness of key black leaders to address head-on both the perception of the predominance of blacks in street crime and the destructiveness of black-on-black crime has breathed fresh air into a discussion that for too long has been inhibited by defensiveness and fear of fanning more racial bigotry.

Earlier this month, Jackson convened a three-day conference here to deal with the issue of crime in the black community, and particularly black-on-black crime. "What's going on?" he asked at one point. "Why are we so quick to kill each other?" Lively and often heated discussions took place over the lyrics of "gangsta rap" that so often spew racial hate.

Ripples of a new awareness of the need to take more imaginative action from whatever origin are occurring everywhere. Projects are being undertaken to buy up guns or trade them for entertainment tickets or other rewards. Here in Washington, former heavyweight boxing champion Riddick Bowe recently underwrote one that netted a remarkable 3,600 guns of all varieties.

It is argued that such projects won't get criminals to give up their guns, and hence won't reduce street crime. But the symbolism of citizens awakening to the peril sends a strong message to the community at large.

Dr. King's birthday brought new attention to a proposal last April by Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the genuine black heroes of the civil rights movement. They want the King anniversary to be observed as a day of active citizen involvement in community service, including a focus on combating youth crime. It did not happen on any notable scale this year, but they are pursuing the effort.

There continues to be resistance, to be sure, to focusing on violence by black youth and on black-on-black violence without considering the larger question of why there is so much crime and poverty in urban black America.

There is always the danger that such core questions will be shunted aside in the process of addressing what is today a more immediate, higher-profile cause of fear and consternation in the larger cities. But the door Jackson has opened with his candor is not likely to be so easily slammed shut by those black leaders who have reservations about walking through.

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