Rosa Parks' New Ordeal

September 04, 1994

It would be easy -- and wrong -- to over-interpret the symbolic meaning of the Rosa Parks story. The black woman who helped start the modern civil rights movement by refusing to accept the indignity imposed on her by a white man in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 is subjected to the indignity and pain of being beaten and robbed by a black man in Detroit, Mich., in 1994.

No one should believe America has replaced its "white man problem" with a "black man problem." White racism of a different sort than the 1950s version still is part of the explanation for the economic and social gulf between the races today. But it is also true that there is now a "black man problem" that is a greater immediate, day-to-day peril for Ms. Parks and other law-abiding blacks, especially those who reside in large cities.

Crime has increased to a degree that no one would have predicted 40 years ago. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports, there was an increase of nearly 500 percent in the number of violent crimes per 100,000 population from 1955 to 1992 (the last year for which there are figures). Blacks are disproportionately the victims and the violent.

Our own reference material only allows us to compare individual city rates back to 1967, but the change is glaring and frightening. In Rosa Parks' Detroit over the quarter century 1967-1992, the murder rate per 100,000 went from 17 to 60, the robbery rate from 730 to 1,220, the aggravated assault rate from 282 to 1,240 and the rape rate from 44 to 120.

The crime bill Congress passed last month is supposed to help by providing more police, more jails and more prevention programs to deal with the problem she lamented after her attack: "So many of our children are going astray."

Both approaches are very much needed. But the first appropriations bills to fund the different elements in the crime bill have just passed or are on the verge of passing. We hope they are not typical of what is to come in the years ahead.

The appropriations bills provide over $2 billion for arresting and imprisoning criminals and about $50-$150 million for prevention programs aimed at keeping youths from entering the criminal life. This is not the ratio that was promised.

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