For some time now, residents of some US cities have noted occasional incidents of seemingly random, racially motivated violence in which young Black males are involved. The hot weather and bad economy seem to be combining to generate a small but possibly significant uptick this year. The national media are doing their best to avoid looking too closely at this disturbing phenomenon, and perhaps for good reason. What the United States doesn’t need is a media firestorm that triggers copycat violence.
Nevertheless some attention should be paid. Journalist Eugene Kane has the bare bones in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Philadelphia – While out of town last week, I suddenly started receiving urgent long-distance messages about young black people in Milwaukee acting crazy.
Last time it happened, I was on vacation during the Fourth of July weekend when a bunch of misbehaving young black people ransacked a gas station convenience store and attacked residents in a park.
This time, I was in my hometown of Philadelphia attending the National Association of Black Journalists convention when my BlackBerry started blowing up with news about what happened Thursday night at the Wisconsin State Fair.
According to reports, it was similar to what happened in Riverwest last month, but on a much more brutal – and scarier – scale.
When people start reporting they were being beaten by black people for no other reason than being white people at the State Fair, that’s pretty disturbing.
Here is a news account of the violence. As Kane points out, Milwaukee isn’t the only city to have seen problems like this.
For most of the summer, Philadelphia cops have dealt with a series of so-called flash mobs that turned violent, scores of young blacks roaming the center city area and attacking mostly white pedestrians and shoppers.
It’s so bad, Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey recently announced a coordinated response to the problem, which involves law enforcement measures, social responses and neighborhood outreach. They’re relying on a network of African-American professionals, community leaders and officials in the city to step up to the plate.
On Friday, Nutter said he would increase police street patrols and enforce curfews for young people. The city’s curfew ordinance says children under the age of 13 must be home by 10 p.m., and young people between the ages of 13 and 18 must be home by midnight.
Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson has described Philadelphia flash mobs for the Philadelphia Inquirer like this:
Flash mobs have reappeared on the streets of Center City. These groups of mostly black youths gravitate to a designated location at an appointed time. Once there, they become a mob that gathers force as it roams the streets, wreaking havoc on businesses while terrifying and sometimes attacking pedestrians.
Dick Simpson of the Chicago Journal describes the situation in his city:
These well-known social conditions breed anger and lawlessness. And so we now have black “flash mobs” attacking whites in the Loop, on public beaches along the North Side, as well as throughout the River North and Lakeview neighborhoods.The term “flash mob” originated when college-aged kids would converge on a spot like Grand Central Station in New Yorkand do seemingly-impromptu performance art.But now, the term is being applied to violent groups. For several years, roving groups of black teenagers have attacked folks on the South and West sides of Chicago as far out as Oak Park.These young folks in gangs and flash mobs are not afraid of the police. They attack and steal quickly — they are gone long before the police arrive. They just move on to another spot for their next attack. The beatings of victims can be brutal.
In a piece on the Black underclass in Chicago for In These Times, Salim Muwakkil interviews a participant.
Jamal Foster’s story is an example… Foster says he and his friends often travel to North Avenue and Oak Street Beach—two popular lakefront locations along the Gold Coast—to intimidate people and steal whatever they can. “We can get some good stuff down there,” the 17-year-old says. “You can’t get no iPods or nothing like that on the West Side. So we go to where you can and when we mob up, even the cops can’t stop us.”
Law enforcement’s impotence in halting such crimes—more than a dozen incidents in the first weeks of June alone—is the probable reason Chicago police took the unprecedented action of closing the densely crowded North Avenue Beach on Memorial Day. (The official reason given for the shutdown was to allow medical vehicles access to treat several heat-related injuries.)
The Christian Science Monitor adds Washington and Las Vegas to the list of cities experiencing this phenomenon and discusses another pastime: “a game called ‘Knockout King,’ played primarily by black teenagers, where the point is to approach and quickly strike a stranger, often whites or immigrants, in an attempt to knock them unconscious with the first punch.”
Sounds like fun. A twist that is also gaining popularity is the “flash rob” where a large group of young people descends on a store and loots it. As responsible journalists are always careful to say, the overall trend of youth crime in the US remains headed down, but this particular form of crime seems to be gaining steam.
There are many observations one can make — both about the phenomenon itself and about the gingerly way the press wants to handle it.
As to the phenomenon, it points to an important trend I’ve been reviewing in a series of posts on the state of Black America. What was once a cohesive community is fragmenting in several directions. Immigrants from Africa and from the African diaspora in Central America and the Caribbean are changing the definition of what it means to be an African American, and neither the interests nor the experiences of the new immigrants always fit comfortably into African American culture and ideology. Beyond that, the three main groups of native-born African Americans are growing apart. There is an increasingly well connected and successful African American elite who negotiate the upper reaches of American society on reasonably satisfactory terms, and life for them just keeps getting better. Oprah, President Obama, and a host of others are doing just fine.
Suburban Dallas (Wikimedia)
Then comes a middle to lower middle class. They are not rich but in many cases they have college educations and are increasingly found in the suburbs. This group faces serious economic stress; the Great Recession, the housing bust and the implosion of public sector employment are eating away at the Black middle class.
Finally there is the urban underclass; in many respects it is significantly worse off than in the 1970s. Social conditions in the inner city (as assessed by measures like public health, the percentage of illegitimate births and the percentage of pregnancies that end in abortion, achievement on standardized tests, high school and college graduation rates, unemployment, HIV prevalence, drug usage and the incarceration rate) are appalling and many indicators are worse than they were a generation ago.
The lines of communication between the Black poor and the Black elite have largely broken down. (A similar process has taken place among whites.) President Obama has had little to say in the White House about the desperately deteriorating situation of Black America — much less about the disproportionate effect cuts in government spending will have on African Americans looking to government to provide jobs or to deliver services. The personal and individual triumphs of highly visible African American public officials and business and intellectual leaders does not resonate with young people who see no road from where they are to where Oprah Winfrey or Colin Powell stand.
The same thing is true at a local level. As more successful families have moved out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, the ability of the national and local “Black Establishment” to intervene in moments of tension is dropping. Many inner city kids today grow up feeling abandoned by Black leaders as well as by whites. Should flash mobs or other disturbing phenomena catch on more widely (and the combination of social media and idle youth can lead to very rapid shifts in behavior), it is not clear that either local or national leaders could do much to calm things down.
Given the toll the Great Recession has taken on what were already poor job and life prospects for inner city youth, and given the divide that increasingly leaves poor and marginal Black youth feeling abandoned by Black as well as white leaders, there is reason for concern about the potential for disturbing and violent developments. Add to this the prevalence of weapons in some circles, the organizational base that gangs provide and the ubiquity of social media, it is not unlikely that future violence in the cities would look more like flash mobs and less like the urban riots of the 1960s. Those riots targeted Black neighborhoods, Black owned stores and much of the property destroyed in the riots belonged to Blacks; any new trouble would likely be more effective at spreading the pain beyond the inner city. Link ups in some cases with religious radicals or foreign interests who seek to do us harm cannot be excluded.
The 2005 riots in France and the more recent riot in London tell us that youth and unemployment can be a bad mix; violent flash mobs should remind us that the same thing can happen here and in the age of social media, violent crowds can appear where and when law enforcement can’t cope.
Traditional liberals come in at this point to argue for spending more money on the traditional social intervention programs in the inner city. This is unlikely to happen; there is not much evidence that these programs accomplish very much — and there isn’t any money. Even taxing “millionaires and billionaires” to the eyeballs won’t manage out of control entitlements — much less inaugurate yet another “Marshall Plan for the cities”.
The United States badly needs a workable and affordable post-Great Society approach to the inner cities. Unfortunately, we don’t have this yet and it is quite possible that we will face some testing times as a result.
But there is another trend that bears watching. There are a great many angry and frustrated people in this country who have lost faith in their national leaders and they aren’t Black. They are, in fact, white.
[Readers frequently write to ask why I capitalize "Black" but not "white". Often the question comes with racial resentment attached: there is a feeling that the use of the capital letter reveals some sneaky political agenda. The reason is not some kind of bending-over-backwards PC leftie orthodoxy; it is because I think the terms refer to two different kinds of groups. African Americans are an American ethnic group like Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, German Americans or Jewish Americans. We normally capitalize the name of such ethnic groups: Tibetans, Kurds, Jews, Gypsies. White in America is not one ethnic group; it is a larger, less defined group who do not share the kind of strong common identity that smaller groups do. White is an attribute but it is not an identity. I don't capitalize black when referring to black Africans or Jamaicans; using the capital letter is a way to specify American Blacks, not blacks at large. It's eccentric, maybe, but it seems logical.)
Here’s the problem. In the long run, racial tensions in America seem to be gradually subsiding. Compared to 1960, 1920, 1890 or any other date in American history, race relations today are just peachy. It is my hope and belief that when the bicentennial of the Civil War rolls around in 2061 the United States will be substantially closer to our national goal of a truly post racial society.
Nevertheless, in the short to medium term there is the potential for trouble. Whites as well as Blacks have lost faith in the government and the intellectual and cultural elites. Some whites resent what they see as excessive privilege for Blacks reflected in affirmative action. Many believe that the federal government and the (largely white) upper middle class establishment wants to marginalize the traditional white majority in the US through a combination of deliberate immigration policy aimed at reducing white preponderance in the population and by favoring immigrants and non-whites for education and employment.
For people who feel this way, the reluctance of the mainstream media to cover racial flash mobs is sinister and disturbing. If there were no racial dimension to these mobs they would surely receive much greater publicity and there would be much stroking of chins and learned talk about what the phenomenon meant. Even if there weren’t many examples, our naturally sensationalist media would hype the story to make it big. Youth, violence, Facebook and YouTube: this is an explosive combination and it is exactly the kind of story circulation chasing news outlets would feature.
Given America’s history and the lurid attraction race still holds for the public mind, the racial dimension of (many but not all of) these incidents makes this an even more compelling story. Certainly if random mobs of white kids were attacking peaceful Blacks going about their daily business the media and the commentariat would be deeply engaged. The articles I’ve linked to have been carefully couched and worded in ways that downplay the drama and the human interest. It is understandable and even meritorious that this is so; as I suggested at the beginning of this post no sane person would want to increase the chance that what is still a marginal and occasional pattern of behavior would go viral and enter the mainstream — and to vary the metaphor still further, mainstream media attention is like oxygen for this kind of potential firestorm.
But to a significant number of Americans out there, this restraint looks like just another case of an anti-white elitist media bending over backward to hide the real truth from the American people. Should this phenomenon grow and should the media continue to downplay both the extent and the racial nature of the violence, look for a deep and angry response. Many American whites are young, angry, poorly educated and male. So are many Spanish speaking immigrants. These guys also know how to organize a mob on Facebook.
The Crisis of the Great Society
National politics has not really faced this directly, but the underlying issue in our politics today is not so much the future of the New Deal as it is of the Great Society. Entitlements, immigration policy and the mix of race policies emerging from that decade were long considered untouchable in American politics. That is no longer the case, and increasingly the building blocks of the post 1960s American social order are on the table.
The unaffordable nature of the entitlement structure that has emerged from the Great Society and been much added to (and don’t forget the GOP role in the prescription drug benefit) is at the bottom of the bitter budget battles we’ve seen.
Our current immigration policy is a prescription for social change of vast proportions. Since the 1960s, the US has tried an unprecedented and little discussed experiment in social engineering. In stages over the last fifty years we have combined three bold policies. First, a race-blind immigration policy with a visa lottery as a kind of affirmative action — so to speak — for people from countries which historically had not sent many immigrants to the US has dramatically changed the mix of people coming to the US as immigrants and over time will shift the ethnic and cultural composition of the population. Second, the “immigration holiday” under the tight quota system from 1923 (when public concern over unrestricted immigration led to a sharp decrease) through the 1960s was ended, and the number of legal immigrants increased. Today the US has levels of legal immigration not seen since the World War One era. Third, for many years immigration laws have been laxly or irregularly enforced leading to the presence of something like 11 million illegal workers and residents in the country.
My guess is that in a national referendum all three of these policies would be heavily defeated; but despite its unpopularity, Great Society immigration policy is possibly the single most important social policy the country now has. One consequence of the collapse of public faith in the Establishment will be that attacks on immigration policy will be more frequent and more effective.
Race policy is less unpopular than our immigration policy, but it is likely that public opposition to affirmative action and other forms of racial preference will also grow. There are several forces at work; to dismiss them all as simple racism is to miss the complexity and the strength of forces that, like them or not, are likely to have growing salience moving forward.
The races are very far apart today; many whites believe that by electing a Black president the country has demonstrated its commitment to post racial politics and they expect Blacks to stop complaining about the past and start thriving in the glorious, racism-free paradise of America today. Many whites look at this Black success, and they think it is time to take down the affirmative action scaffolding that assisted the Black rise. Why, they ask, should the children of presidents and cabinet officers — to say nothing of celebrity offspring — benefit from racial preference in hiring and admissions?
For Blacks, especially those who haven’t made it into the elite, unemployment and the staggering losses in Black wealth during the Great Recession are far more consequential than the success of the Black upper crust. Much of White America thinks it has done all anyone could reasonably expect by opening the White House doors to a Black politician; much of Black America thinks little has changed. Many whites think Blacks have effectively used politics to win themselves jobs and preferences; many Blacks think that Black poverty in the age of Obama reveals how pitiful the results of political action really are.
Meanwhile other factors contribute to the growing disenchantment with the racial dimension of Great Society policy. Growing public perception that sixties liberalism doesn’t work undermines the consensus for sixties racial as well as immigration and economic policy. If, as seems likely, popular middle class entitlements must face cutbacks, benefits for the poor will suffer more.
Bad economic times not only make people less generous and more defensive when thinking about social policy; they undermine public confidence in the wisdom and/or trustworthiness of elites. A national political establishment forced to face the unsustainable nature of the fiscal path it has long followed is an emperor without clothes. Elite commitment to affirmative action and the rest of sixties race policy remains strong — but elites of all races are going to have less and less ability to control the direction of American social policy.
The conditions for a Category 5 hurricane are all there; it is easy to see a political reaction taking shape in this country that would make the Tea Party movement look like a PTA bake sale. They say that great storms start with trivial causes: a butterfly waves its wings and, when conditions are just right, the wind begins to grow.
The country is so angry now that it would not take much more than the right butterfly in the right place to take us to the next stage of struggle over the Great Society legacy. Just as the urban riots of the 1960s played a role in the hasty adoption of the sixties policy complex, so a rash of small urban confrontations that caught on à la française could dramatically accelerate and intensify the current upheaval in American politics.
If that happens, the result is very unlikely to be a strengthening of the foundations of the Great Society state.