Black men and crime: An impossibly complex conundrum

September 12, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - A week after Hurricane Katrina roiled the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain and flooded southeastern Louisiana, conservative commentator George Will compared the crisis with the urban riots of the 1960s.

On ABC's This Week, Mr. Will voiced skepticism about the prospects for economic recovery in the region. "I hope New Orleans recovers," he said. "Newark hasn't from the '67 riots. Detroit hasn't from the '67 riots."

At the time, it seemed an odd moment in an otherwise mundane discussion of the politics of natural disaster, since Katrina's devastation was fueled by nature, not social unrest. But Mr. Will's comments merely foreshadowed the fear and suspicion that churned to the surface as a few of New Orleans' violent thugs took advantage of the chaos to loot and maim.

By the second week of the crisis, the grapevine was throbbing with unsubstantiated accounts of rapes, murders, pillaging and predators in and around New Orleans. Indeed, rumors of urban criminals run amok inspired a backlash in places such as Baton Rouge, La. - which took in thousands of refugees seeking sanctuary - that threatened to overshadow the generosity of local institutions and individuals.

At the core of that visceral response is the impossibly complex conundrum of black men and crime, a bramble of stereotypes, prejudice, ignorance and paranoia. And fact. Cold hard truth. Nationally, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, black men are the likely perpetrators in more than 40 percent of the homicides in which a suspect has been identified. That's a damning statistic for a group that represents only about 6 percent of the population.

By the way, they also account for more than 40 percent of the nation's murder victims. And with the inexplicable popularity of a gangsta culture that glamorizes thug life, black men are likely to continue their fratricide.

Nearly 70 percent black and more than a quarter impoverished, New Orleans has endured a stubbornly high rate of violent crime, even as crime rates in most urban areas have receded. According to the FBI, Atlanta reported 114 murders last year. New Orleans, a city of similar size, reported 265.

As the levees were breached and public safety mechanisms failed, some of the city's criminal element descended into anarchy, breaking into stores for TVs and guns, preying on the weak, firing at overwhelmed law enforcement personnel. They were not merely lawless; they were bestial. And they were black.

But the predators were few in number - a relative handful compared with the many frightened residents desperate for help. There were also accounts of black men and women pausing to give water to a stranger, to cover a corpse, to comfort the sick. They, too, represent the black poor.

When the subject of black crime comes up publicly, black politicians and activists tend to blame racism and entrenched poverty. Many whites, by contrast, see evidence of a deep-seated pathology that fosters crime.

While members of the Congressional Black Caucus rightly condemned the tragically incompetent federal response to the flooding, they said precious little about the thugs who further threatened the displaced residents. For its part, the conservative media machine (and even some legitimate news outlets) passed along farfetched rumors of the rape of children and riots in shelters.

Perhaps we humans are hard-wired to fear and distrust one another, and no amount of courageous political leadership will change that. Perhaps no political leader can bridge the toxic floodwaters of anger and suspicion; perhaps no one can show us a way to separate the words "urban" and "violence." Who knows? We haven't had many courageous political leaders who've tried.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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