The recent unrest in Baltimore raises complex and confounding questions, and in response many people have attempted to define the problem solely in terms of insurgent American racism and violent police behavior. But that is a gross oversimplification. America is not reverting to earlier racist patterns, and calling for a national conversation on race is a clich that evades the real problem we now face: on one hand, a vicious tangle of concentrated poverty, disconnected youth and a culture of violence among a small but destructive minority in the inner cities; and, on the other hand, of out-of-control law-enforcement practices abetted by a police culture that prioritizes racial profiling and violent constraint.
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First, we need a more realistic understanding of America’s inner cities. They are socially and culturally heterogeneous, and a great majority of residents are law-abiding, God-fearing and often socially conservative.
According to recent surveys, between 20 and 25 percent of their permanent residents are middle class; roughly 60 percent are solidly working class or working poor who labor incredibly hard, advocate fundamental American values and aspire to the American dream for their children. Their youth share their parents’ values, expend considerable social energy avoiding the violence around them and consume far fewer drugs than their white working- and middle-class counterparts, despite their disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates. In all inner-city neighborhoods, however, there is a problem minority that varies between about 12.1 percent (in San Diego, for example) and 28 percent (in Phoenix) that comes largely from the disconnected youth between ages 16 and 24. Most are not in school and are chronically out of work, though their numbers are supplemented by working- and middle-class dropouts. With few skills and a contempt for low-wage jobs, they subsist through the underground economy of illicit trading and crime.
Many belong to gangs. Their street or thug culture is real, with a configuration of norms, values and habits that are, disturbingly, rooted in a ghetto brand of core American mainstream values: hyper masculinity, the aggressive assertion and defense of respect, extreme individualism, materialism and a reverence for the gun, all inflected with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life. Such street culture is simply the black urban version of one of America’s most iconic traditions: the Wild West.
America’s first gangsta thugs were Billy the Kid and Jesse James. In the youth thug cultures of both the Wild West and the inner cities, America sees inverted images of its own most iconic values, one through rose-tinted glass, the other through a glass, darkly. While there is some continuity between the old Western and thug cultures learned through extensive exposure to the media, that of the urban streets originated more in reaction to the long centuries of institutionalized violence against blacks during slavery and Jim Crow.
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