``You gotta keep up with the style,'' says Mike, an affable 22-year-old from Harlem who works ``downtown'' as a messenger. ``You gotta be part of the crowd. If I wore sneakers under $30, I wouldn't have no friends.'' Mike is explaining, rather obliquely, why so many young blacks are involved in crime. By his own definition, he's ``motivated to the good side.'' He lives with his mother, who raised him on her own. He's a ``good kid,'' he says, because his mother is strict, and he cares about her good opinion. He helps pay the rent out of his $165-a-week paycheck.
But among Mike's friends, acceptance is tied to expensive status symbols. ``If I have $100 sneakers on, it don't matter that I got no money in my pocket,'' he says. Some of his friends, who sometimes make $500 a day selling drugs, refer to his messenger's salary as ``chump change.''
``Kids these days got money,'' says Mike. ``They buy Gucci, and they think they slick. They into material things. That's the thing on everybody's head these days: money. It's money that's sinkin' the world. If you wear canvas sneakers and you don't have no gold, you might as well not be there.''
Mike himself is well turned out. His suede sneakers, jeans, T-shirt, and down jacket are all black. He wears a gold chain around his neck.
Peer pressure is a major reason that poor black teen-agers break the law, many observers say. Others point to the values of a consumer society, where television brings images of wealth and violence into many homes with no wealth and few restraints on violence. The lack of positive role models for ghetto youth and the high visibility of negative models are also cited. If the only men they see wearing expensive clothes and driving luxury cars are drug dealers or pimps, experts contend, youngsters may aspire to be like them. Inner-city isolation breeds crime
``It's a lotta young kids out there selling drugs -- what they call scrambling,'' says Mike. ``That's why they're not in school. You can make a whole lot of money selling drugs. It's easy. I thought of doing it, but I didn't want to get shot or go to jail. I know lots of guys been shot. I got friends that's scrambling. They sell crack and they smoke it. That crack'll deaden you -- it'll make you skinny real quick.''
``The only way to escape is to get away from it,'' he adds.
According to Richard Korn, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York City, if you live in a poor black community, ``getting away from it'' is very difficult.
``Every factor generally associated with crime in any ethnic group is aggravated among low-income blacks,'' Professor Korn says. ``Family and community disorganization; economic deprivation; inferior schooling; inadequate preparation for job competition; lack of job opportunities; discrimination. These are the things that breed crime. In case anybody had any doubts, crime is not a racial phenomenon, it's a societal phenomenon.'' Living in an atmosphere of fear
Crime in inner-city ghettos has increased over the last two decades, as the black community has split, geographically and economically, into two distinct class groups. When most blacks lived together in segregated communities, the law-abiding, churchgoing conservatism of the middle class was a restraining influence on crime. But no longer.
Today, many inner-city blacks have little direct contact with the middle class. Their isolation from the mainstream economy, opportunities, and traditional values is almost total. Many churches, once the backbone of community life, have closed or moved away. Often those blacks who constitute today's ``underclass'' are descendants of the Southern rural poor, who never adjusted, economically or socially, to city life. James D. Williams of the National Urban League sees the isolation of the underclass as a key factor of inner-city crime today.
``A gulf of alienation from the rest of society has developed,'' Mr. Williams says. ``Alienation has to do with values. It has to do with self-concept. It has to do with the absence of male figures in many of these low-income homes. It has a lot to do with education or the lack thereof. It has a lot to do with violence.''
``The ultimate tragedy is that this alienation can produce an individual that you're not going to be able to do anything with no matter what you do, someone who has been completely severed from what we consider normal relationships, someone who's outside the pale,'' he says.
Most victims of inner-city crime are other inner-city residents. They not only suffer actual assaults, but, perhaps even worse, they also feel the constant tension of living in an atmosphere of fear.
According to one social worker who lives on the edge of Harlem, talk of street crimes is ``the conversation of the day.''
``It's especially bad on days when people get their checks,'' she says. ``The criminals know when that is. People are afraid coming out of banks, going to the supermarket, going to pay their rent. You think somebody's going to follow you and rip you off.''
``Elevators are a very bad spot, too,'' says the social worker. ``If they don't get you coming out of a bank, they'll just follow you into your building. Often old people don't have their keys out, they'll fumble at the door and the person following them will come right in, go into the elevator with them, and rob them. The criminals make a career out of knowing what the straight people do and don't do to protect themselves.''
``In some blocks there are a lot of crack houses. There's a heavy drug population around here -- in the projects people are selling drugs,'' she says. ``Crack makes law-abiding people very dissatisfied with the police. Why don't they do something about it? It's being allowed to go on for some reason and it's very disturbing. You can't let your guard down day or night.'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: In 1983, there were 437,238 prisoners in correctional facilities throughout the US; 200,216, or 45.8% were black; SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Justice Department.