As the nation debates whether race had anything to do with the hideous assaults on women by mostly black and Puerto Rican assailants in Central Park June 11, a Justice Department report on 1998 murder rates released only weeks earlier showed that the black murder rate, while dropping, is still seven times higher than whites'.
This at a time when the economy is sizzling, black unemployment is at its lowest level in decades and blacks are earning more and living better than ever. The huge rise in the number of police, the construction of dozens of new prisons and the passage of tougher laws have done little to curb the violence.
If young whites were killing other whites in the appalling proportions revealed by the Justice Department, policymakers would declare it a crisis and rush to find ways to stop it. Likewise, if whites were killing blacks by the thousands, African-American leaders would be marching in the streets.
The first step toward solving the puzzle of the chronically high black murder rates is to avoid simple stereotypes. Blacks are not slaughtering each other at an alarming rate because they are by nature violent or crime prone, as white supremacists would have it. Nor are they killing each other simply because they are "poor and oppressed," as many old-school liberals believe. It's also simplistic scapegoating to say they are acting out the obscene and lewd violence they see and hear on TV, in films and in gangster rap lyrics on the streets. Instead, the violence results from a combustible blend of cultural and racial baggage many blacks carry.
When women were groped, fondled and assaulted in New York's Central Park by mostly young black and Puerto Rican males, many observers wanted to chalk it up to male misbehavior toward women. But it's wrong to deny there was a racial component to the melee. Far too many young black males today are taking out their frustrations with white society on women. They react to the denial of their manhood by adopting an exaggerated tough-guy role, a warped response to racism and deprivation, powerlessness and alienation. They swagger, boast, curse, commit violent self-destructive acts and lash out at others -- almost always women and other black men, who they perceive to be as helpless and hapless as themselves.
When black women refuse to be sexually submissive or are perceived as trying to control men, they can become targets of violence. Black females are far more likely to be murdered by black males than white females by white males. In Central Park, the victims included white women -- which may be part of why the maulings became a national scandal.
In the past, crimes committed by blacks against other blacks were often ignored or lightly punished. The implicit message was that black lives were expendable. Many studies have confirmed that the punishment blacks receive when the victim is white is far more severe than if the victim is black. This perceived devaluation of black lives by racism has encouraged disrespect for the law and has forced many blacks to internalize anger and displace aggression onto others, and often those victims are women.
The other powerful ingredient in the deadly mix of black-on-black violence is the gang and drug plague. The spread of the drug trade during the 1980s made black youth gangs even bigger and more dangerous. Drug trafficking not only provided illicit profits but also made gunplay even more widespread. Gang members used their arsenals to fend off attacks, protect their profits from hostile predators and settle scores with rivals. Much of the recent escalation in the murder rates can be directly traced to busted drug deals, competition over markets and disputes over turf. Often, innocent victims are caught in their shootouts, thus fortifying the conviction of suburban whites that black communities are depraved war zones.
It's true that the black murder rate has fallen in the last few years, a response to a rising economy as well as crack's declining hold on urban neighborhoods. But an economic slowdown, increased tension with the police and a projected upswing in the number of 14- to 20-year-olds -- the most crime-prone age group -- may trigger a new wave of killings. Certainly New York has seen a rise in homicides over the last year.
Unfortunately, the Justice Department report contained no suggestions as to how to confront this danger. Presumptive Republican presidential contender George W. Bush and rival Democrat Al Gore have been stone silent on the issue of high black murder rates and have not proposed any new policy initiatives to deal with the problem.
It will take a society-wide effort by educators, health professionals, drug counselors, violence prevention specialists, gang intervention activists, victims' groups and local community leaders to curb the violence. They must devise short- and long-term strategies to provide better jobs, training and education for young black men, as well as address the spiritual and psychological roots of the problem. But a necessary first step is acknowledging the crisis, and declaring a national commitment to bring down the black murder rate, as well as dramatically reduce black violence against women.