Concerning those crime statistics

January 13, 1995

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's response to the latest crime statistics recalls a discussion President Clinton, Jesse Jackson and others initiated last year. The president and Mr. Jackson said then that black-on-black crime, particularly the homicide epidemic among young African-American males, was the most serious threat to black progress today.

Last week, it was Mr. Schmoke's turn to contrast crime to the social injustices of an earlier era: "We are doing more harm to ourselves than was ever contemplated during the era of segregation," he said. "We have inflicted more pain on ourselves than the Klan did during the worst periods."

In speaking thus, Mr. Schmoke was addressing himself directly to his fellow African Americans. Ironically, that kind of talk got both Mr. Jackson and President Clinton in trouble last year. Many people complained their statements lent credence to racist stereotypes that portray all blacks as potential rapists, robbers and murderers. Yet Mr. Schmoke suffered no such censure for his remarks. That itself may be a measure of how much the discussion has matured over the past year.

Still, the statistics are disturbing. Though the number of homicides in Baltimore actually declined slightly -- to 321 last year, compared to 353 in 1993 -- blacks were still disproportionately represented. In a city that is 60 percent African American, blacks accounted for 90 percent of homicide victims and 96 percent of homicide suspects.

Mr. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier suggested that the decline in fatal shootings is a sign that violence in the city is finally starting to ebb as a result of a series of drug raids in violent neighborhoods last year. Mr. Frazier estimates that two-thirds of Baltimore's slayings are drug-related and says the raids "helped take violent offenders off the street."

That may be an overstatement. Slight variations in the crime rate occur for many reasons -- last winter's unusually cold weather, for example, caused a temporary dip.

It probably is too early to tell whether the downward trend will continue. Law enforcement is certainly vital to the effort. But so is reducing poverty, joblessness and despair.

That is why "empowerment" projects -- such as the $100 million grant recently awarded Baltimore to bring decent housing, businesses and jobs to blighted inner-city neighborhoods -- are so desperately needed.

Mr. Jackson rightly urged a moral and spiritual crusade against crime comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There are signs that is already happening.

But spiritual uplift can do only so much to ameliorate the acute social ills that afflict poor communities. The task also requires a long-term commitment of resources that produces tangible benefits for people. The lawlessness in long-depressed, neglected areas of black America cannot be simply preached or lectured away.

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