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Facing facts on violence

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"As violence in Rochester increases, the police will try to do their job. But that does not deal with the cause."

Rochester is more than a decade into an epidemic of violence – a specific kind of violence: young black men shooting at, and too often killing, other young black men.

Can we talk about this?

If we can't, we'll never address it effectively.

From January 1 through June, Rochester had 22 murders. Most of them took place in the curving swath of the inner city known as the Crescent. Most of the victims were young black males. So, police say, were most of the killers.

The police will do what they traditionally do when the violence rate ticks up: put more resources into the Crescent, stop and question more people, clamp down on petty infractions. And that may help – for a while.

But it's not a solution. It deals with the symptom, not the roots. The roots are in the joblessness and poverty that have developed, in highly concentrated form, in Rochester and in many of America's inner cities. And it's not news that joblessness and poverty have hit black Americans disproportionately hard.

Poverty itself doesn't cause people to become violent. But Rochester, like many other cities, is dealing with multi-generational joblessness and poverty, says RIT criminal-justice expert John Klofas.

And black-on-black violence – young-black on young-black violence – is one of the results.

Clearly, black boys are not born with a propensity for violence. Most black boys don't become violent. But a higher percentage of them engage in violent behavior than do white boys. And a higher percentage of them are killed on the streets of America's inner cities, where poverty and unemployment are high.

I've heard some liberals suggest that young black men turn to crime because they have "lost hope." That's too facile an explanation. Black teenagers do not shoot other black teenagers because they've lost hope.

"Hope," says Klofas, "implies some sort of expectation," and hopelessness a loss of expectation. People who have a job and lose it may lose hope after years of fruitless searching. But if their children aren't able to get jobs when they become adults, and then their grandchildren? The result, suggests Klofas, is "a blindness. You grow up without even an expectation."

What we're faced with is a problem of depressing complexity. Right now, Klofas notes, we have "a difficult economy, an educational system that doesn't function very well," generations of people with a poor education and few skills, and very few jobs for which they are suited.

We have, Klofas says, "completely failed to provide an avenue for people to have hope."

To effectively stop the violence, to change the culture in which it is developing, will require changing the institutions that serve the families trapped in poverty: schools, housing, social services. That won't be easy or cheap. Klofas and I both believe, for instance, that it will require giving families access to schools and neighborhoods that are not overwhelmed by poverty. Many of those schools and neighborhoods are in the suburbs.

But it will also require job training, job opportunities. Jobs. At a decent wage. Rochester hasn't completely ignored this, but we offer nowhere near what will be necessary.

As low-skill, well-paying jobs have disappeared in America, nothing has developed to replace them. And as generation after generation have grown up jobless, and the employed moved out, inner-city poverty and unemployment rates have risen. And a culture of expectation – of employment, of stability, of a decent living – has been snuffed out.

This year's murder rate isn't the highest in Rochester's history. But it's unacceptable, and it's rising. The police will try to do their job, which is to deal with the effect of the development of multi-generational poverty. That does not deal with the cause, though. We're not even talking about the cause, or how to address it.

Most white mothers in Greater Rochester don't worry that their sons will end up dead or in prison. Many African-American mothers do. That we permit that to happen is one of the most important moral issues of our time.

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