A Rage in Oakland
A few nights ago, there was a riot in Oakland, California, in response to the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a transit police officer. Yes, there was a cause but the violence got out of hand as violence almost always does in these situations. Cars were set afire, business windows smashed, and one young black woman seen on CNN said that people were rioting because they live in a state of terror and wanted to make others feel terror, too. Different people said that they were tired of black males being murdered by the police. They should be tired whenever it is murder, or such irresponsibly excessive force that it might as well be. But there is something else.
While black people scream, chant, and holler about killer cops, the central cause of death among black males is not excessive police action. There is however plenty of chilling documentation that proves we have among us a national slaughterhouse—the roller coaster numbers of black people, especially males, killed by other black males. In Oakland, black homicides number ten times those of other ethnic groups and are, shockingly, closer to the average oppression by black crime across our country than they are anachronisms.
The left has an understandable but irrational hatred of law enforcement that obscures what is a clear and present danger to the lives of American citizens.
A sociologist named James Fox from Northeastern University has just released a study called "The Recent Surge in Homicides Involving Young Black Males and Guns: Time to Reinvest in Prevention and Crime Control." Uh oh. The mere suggestion that our society should invest in the prevention of murder and crime in black communities from coast to coast is thought reprehensible by those on the left and the right. When Barack Obama said that it was time for the brothers to pull their pants up, he could add that it is also time for those who purport to think about urban problems to open up their eyes and ears so that they can see that the ambulances arriving after the bullets fly are not the siren songs of mythic tales and those put on the stretchers or in the body bags are not play-acting in a perpetual Halloween slaughter. They are the ugly details of the real deal.
Though these homicides have continued to pile up over the last two decades, the crisis has largely been ignored by the civil rights establishment, our Marxist university professors who fat-mouth past the facts, our white liberals who remain as lame as ever, and, finally, way over on the other side, the hard core social and fiscal conservatives who usually stand mute on the issue (a brilliant exception being Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute). The social and fiscal conservatives should be alarmed by—if nothing else—the billions this country has to pay for the murders, the rehabilitation, the mutilations, the disability, the psychological trauma, and so on. But no: whether on the left or the right, they are all pigs at a trough of clichés.
But James Fox has a stump to fit their rumps. His study of national crime statistics shows that, as Daily News columnist Errol Louis wrote in New York, "the number of black male youngsters who were murder victims rose by 31 percent between 2002 and 2007—and the number of black juvenile murder perpetrators jumped "43 percent.” The report also says that this was "consistently true for every region of the country."
The left has an understandable but irrational hatred of law enforcement that obscures what is a clear and present danger to the lives of American citizens. The hatred is rooted in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s as well as the inarguable excessive force and Keystone Kop level of police work that has jailed some innocent black people. (When I taught a black literature course in the penitentiary in California, all of my students described themselves as "political prisoners" until I asked how many of them were serving time for crimes that they did not commit. None raised their hands. By political prisoners they explained that they meant they lacked the money to hire the kinds of lawyers that got those white crooks off. There you go.)
We are also familiar with the pop psychology "explanation" for this violence that is supposed to be a lack of self-esteem. The trouble is that murderers do not kill their victims because of a lack of self-esteem but because they feel that their victims lack the kind of esteem to them that would cause the killers not to shear away their lives. These are basically cowardly people who sneak up on one another and blow away their targets in imitation of Mafia gangsters. Punks with pistols and with shotguns or other heavy personal artillery.
For those who think these knuckleheads are truly rough customers, you may have noticed that, for all of the murder and the mayhem caused by the street gangs of Los Angeles over the last three decades, there has not been one serious shootout with the cops, even during the 1992 riot. Talking stuff is one thing but firing a bullet at a man who has been trained to shoot back is another.
Here is a bit more information because Fox, however up to date, is saying something that we should already have faced in this country but have failed to when the blood sticks our shoes to the streets. For instance, street gangs in the black community of Los Angeles have killed off far more black people than white racists did throughout the highest tide of racist murder. Young black men now become killers in turf wars and their targets are the same as white bigots and their resentments are the same. Gang members celebrate the coarse and the common as the "real" qualities of black people who have gone about "keeping it real" and not becoming "sell-outs." We find them consistently hostile to learning and refinement in black people, which is described as "trying to be white." Whatever respect these black gang members achieve in their world is commanded through the same terrorist methods of unapologetic racists or warring Mafia muscleheads—homicide, violence, and intimidation.
The social weight of this attitude is a condition of social terror shocking in its casualties. "Between 1976 and 2004," writes Spelman College historian William Jelani Cobb, "African Americans, who are 13 percent of the population, constituted nearly 47 percent of the homicides cases in the United States." A BET American Gangster episode that focused on Tookie Williams, a founder of the notorious Crips, said that the war with the rival Bloods has murdered nearly 15,000 between the 1970s and today. Since 1980, street gangs have killed 10,000 people in Los Angeles alone. This is three times the number of black people lynched throughout the United States between 1877 and 1900. That earlier period resulted in the nation's highest number of racial murders, 3,000 victims, usually men. Now the lynchers are black and have replaced hemp with hot lead. As James Ahearn wrote in a sobering story about epidemic gun homicides in the April 11, 2007, edition of The (Bergen) Record, "Typically, shooter and victim are both black, male, young, with arrest records, uneducated, with dim life prospects. The killers act with careless indifference to the enormity of what they have done, or to the likelihood that they in turn will be cut down, in retribution.''
Before the victories of the civil-rights movement, many of the murders of black people during the most intense redneck reigns throughout the South were committed by those once infamously known as "poor white trash." What is now so appalling is that the street gangs that currently terrorize black communities across the nation do so with astonishing levels of murder and mayhem, but they are so often defined by supposedly empathetic liberals—of any color!—as victims of race and class.
I never heard this glib hogwash when the murderers were white and the resultant corpses were black. No one ever explained that the lower-class rednecks, who were responsible for terrorist actions and murder, did so because their own wretched poverty made them feel desperately inferior to the white upper class of the South. When the killers were white, the issues were justice and injustice, not social station or income. Perhaps what they actually thought was that white people, unlike black people, have responsibility for their actions.
The opinions of those who had been so ice cold when it came to Southern racists either became quiet or turned to ways of explaining away the corpse after corpse after corpse left perforated by shotgun blasts and automatic weapons. Some of these victims were gangbangers, some were innocent bystanders, some were children caught in cross fires. This malevolent violence is so pervasive that at virtually any black community meeting held anywhere in the country everyone knows a person who was wounded or killed in an absurd moment of unfocused cruelty. I know this. My daughter was a casualty at a party in Los Angeles when some guys were not allowed in because the didn't appear on the guest list. Their reaction was quick and as simple as some of the kinds of cowboys who made the West wild. One was heard to shout, "Go get our guns." Shortly afterward they shot through the windows with automatic weapons, killing no one but sending everyone to floor, some of whom were hurt. As one young killer smilingly said of innocent victims to a friend, "If you was there, I guess you wasn't spared." Hmmm.
Having traveled across this nation to many cities during the past three decades, I have always noticed a distinct difference in how these slaughtering knuckleheads are seen by those within striking distance of their anarchic wrath. What they see has nothing in common with those who live far from the mean streets that have become our concrete killing fields. Those oppressed by crime do not have sympathy for these killers because their hearts bleed from them, not for them. They want them controlled, incarcerated or, if necessary, removed from the world once and for all.
Is that because lower-class black people, so poorly educated and not aware of social complexities, do not understand the nuances of racism and cannot comprehend the overwhelming power of the self-hatred that drives these young men who only want the warmth of comradeship and the empowering feeling of importance? Even if they must get that feeling of importance by terrorizing their communities?
I do not think that is the problem at all. Lower-class black people may not always know statistics, but they do know that the overwhelming majority of black people who are not economically fortunate do not murder, rape and brutalize other people. The monsters among us are always a decided minority, even within a minority, somewhere just above 1 percent. That is the hardest and most enduring fact, but the one that those who fear being called racist or sellouts never want to hear or look at; a few hard stares might make them realize that true compassion for the oppressed brings with it the courage to call out those who overtly oppress, terrorize. It is too late in the world to put all blame at the feet of "the system." Unfortunately such liberals and compassionate conservatives prefer to think of black people and Hispanics as windup toys who can make no decisions of their own. That is part of the burden and the tragedy of our time.
If Barack Obama can handle that, he will surely be one of our greatest presidents because Americans love the spectacle of blood spilled at a distance. But when the red splashes close enough to them they hate the taste of it.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.