Blacks Look Inward on Crime

Miami Urban League and others are asking how young black men can avoid crime, support families

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE president of the Greater Miami Urban League, T. Willard Fair, spares no words when he describes how young black men in poverty-stricken neighborhoods here kill each other and the African-American community looks on helplessly:

``Our children are killing each other in the streets. The white man's reaction to it is to build more jails. Our reaction to it is to condemn him for wanting to build more jails,'' he said at a recent conference. ``Our reaction should be: `We gotta stop our children from killing each other.' ''

On Friday, Mr. Fair pulled together the black community's civic, political, and religious leadership for a ``Black Men Only'' conference. Held behind closed doors in a Miami hotel, the conference was part of ``a very painful kind of self-analysis,'' to find out ``what is our responsibility.''

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The Urban League thinks blacks have won the struggle for equal rights and now should focus attention on personal development. It says men should be taught to take responsibility for the women and children in their lives rather than letting that responsibility be passed on to government. And it urges community groups to mobilize and find alternatives to government programs that have not worked for them.

The conference was intended to get community leaders thinking along those lines, instead of blaming white racism, Fair said.

The conference was a smaller scale of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conference held in Baltimore earlier last week, but the Miami conference differed in small ways. Participants had to write answers to questions like: ``Why are so many black juveniles in the juvenile justice system?'' and ``How do I earn respect as a man and father?''

As the head of the Urban League here for 31 years, Fair thinks that entrenched poverty and crime in some parts of the black community are the result of black men abdicating their responsibility to women and the children they sire.

``At the root of the problems in black Miami is the black male's inability to recognize that there is something wrong with him, not with others,'' he said.

Until recently in the black community, saying something like that would have been more than ``blaming the victim.'' It would have been heresy.

During the 1970s and '80s, when the deaths of young black men by gunshots were rising, the black community was reluctant to talk about the problem, said the National Urban League in its 1993 ``The State of Black America'' report.

Civil rights optimism

``In the light of optimism spawned by successes of the [civil rights] movements and the real gains in income and status enjoyed by those of us who benefited most directly from these successes, this tendency toward repressing news that might spoil our good feelings about our accomplishments became very widespread,'' wrote Jeff Howard, a psychologist, in the report.

For more than a decade, the report said, the dominant view in the community was ``they [the government and the larger white society] created these conditions, so let them do something about it.''

That position has changed in the '90s. Blacks are getting impatient about crime and are adopting a tougher stand. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken in March showed 41 percent of blacks want the nation's attention to focus on crime; this is twice the level of concern shown for any other issue.

Black households are nearly three times more likely than white ones to fear crime in their neighborhoods, and that black fear is growing faster than white fear, according to a survey by the United States Justice Department.

Between 1985 and 1991, the percentage of white households that believe crime in their neighborhoods is a serious problem grew from 4 percent to 6 percent. Among black households, the figure grew from 9 percent to almost 17 percent. In central cities, black households viewing neighborhood crime as serious rose from 12 percent to 23 percent over the period.

Black shift on curfew

When Florida's Dade County passed an ordinance in January imposing a curfew on teenagers as a crime-fighting measure, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the ordinance, saying it violated teenagers' freedom. But rather than backing the ACLU, the Greater Miami Urban League and the African American Council of Christian Clergy went to court to support the county. In the past, black leaders would have argued such a curfew might unfairly target young black men.

The shift in attitude occurred because middle-class blacks are finding that they cannot quite divorce themselves from those who were left behind despite the civil rights movement. However successful middle-class blacks become, they say, the larger society looks at them through lenses plastered with images of the underclass.

``The fate of the [underclass] and of their children is bound to ours,'' Howard wrote. ``The status and the regard in which all black people are held and our self-esteem as a people are tied to their conditions and behavior.''

Hence an impatience with waiting for government to come and solve inner city problems and a growing movement toward ``do for self.''

From the gun buy-back programs in Jacksonville, Fla. and Detroit to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's ambitious plan to have judges release first-time nonviolent teenage offenders to churches instead of sending them to jail, blacks are trying to take action into their own hands.

``We are convinced that the answers [to poverty and crime] lie not in the White House or in Tallahassee,'' said Herman Dorset, a professor at Florida International University, at the conference on Friday. ``The answers lie in ourselves. We all are in this together.''

But Ralph Gomes, a professor of sociology at Howard University in Washington, says efforts in the black community alone may not achieve significant results. Dislocations in the black community are so deep that it will take a combination of a consistently growing economy, political will by government, and efforts among blacks to turn around their community.

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