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Urban journal 10.05.05

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Do something!

"Man shot dead in argument." "Father, son arrested in fatal assault." "Gunfire kills girl, 16." "Boy, 2, wounded by stray bullet." "Another child shot in city." "Teen suffers stab wound."

Well, you've seen the news. Rochester's in the midst of a full-blown epidemic of violence. And there are the usual, predictable, calls for action.

Some community leaders want curfews. The Democrat and Chronicle editorial page wants Mayor Bill Johnson to "call an emergency meeting of city leaders" (assuming, apparently, that the solution to this crisis lies within the city limits).

We dohave to do something. The question is, what?

The danger is that we'll do the easy, ineffective things we always do and think we're doing something valuable.

And when this spate of violence passes --- and it will pass --- we'll go back to sleep.

Until the next outbreak.

Curfews and police crackdowns may give us short-term relief. And certainly, relief is important, short-term or not. But none of these things address the root of the problem.

Let me say this one more time: we can not bottle up our poorest citizens --- shut thousands of poor people off, together, from the rest of us --- and expect anything different than what we're getting.

If we think we can stop the violence without addressing poverty and its concentration, we're nuts. And irresponsible.

There will be no simple solutions. Curfews, mentors, church outreach work: all of that is busy work. It won't fix the problem.

We can arrest hundreds of inner-city teenagers, and that won't fix the problem either.

What we are witnessing, says RIT criminal-justice professor John Klofas, are the effects of social isolation. "A set of norms and values develop in these isolated groups that govern behavior," Klofas says. "You see it in highly segregated societies. You see it in apartheid societies."

The myth is that the drug trade is driving the kind of violence we're seeing. That's not the case. Prolonged poverty, prolonged social isolation has produced what public-policy expert William Julius Wilson refers to as a "social pathology," a culture of poverty.

The solution: find a way to break down that isolation. This community is not about to embark on full-scale housing integration or school integration. Maybe, says Klofas, there are other ways to connect isolated people. Jobs would certainly be one way --- but what kind of jobs --- jobs paying decent wages --- are there for people with few skills and a poor education?

To adequately deal with our violence problem requires radical solutions, not little nibbling-around-the-edges projects. Job training, education, job creation, housing: a real solution will involve all of those. And that requires full participation by all of the community, not just city officials, neighborhood groups, and churches. It will require participation by business, by the county, by suburban leaders.

Unfortunately, as Klofas notes, the worse the violence grows, the more reluctant people will be to participate.

So where do we go from here? Go ahead and convene that committee, Mr. Mayor. But insist that county officials, business leaders, university presidents, suburban leaders participate. Insist that the discussion go beyond law enforcement. Way beyond.

Insist that everybody read the literature on this issue: William Julius Wilson's "The Truly Disadvantaged" and "When Work Disappears," Doug Massey and Nancy Denton's "American Apartheid," Carl Rowan's "The Coming Race War in America," Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West's "The Future of the Race"....

Refuse entry to anybody who thinks this is a "city" problem.

And insist that anybody who isn't willing to talk about radical, long-term solutions might as well stay home.

This is no time for small measures. And it's no time for the typical Rochester Way of Doing Things.


The Bush game

The president has found a crafty way to get his way: nominate people with no paper trail. The Supreme Court is now headed by someone who seems sweet and sincere, but about whom we know little. And on the heels of his confirmation has come the nomination of Harriet Miers, about whom we know even less.

We know that she was a groundbreaking attorney in Texas, the first woman to head both the Dallas and the state bar associations. We know that the Democrats' Harry Reid likes her, and that New York's Charles Schumer is concerned about how little we know.

And that's about it. Except this: we know that she's a Bush appointee, a Bush crony, and a longtime Bush confidant. Qualifications haven't been a major concern for this president. And it's unimaginable that Bush doesn't know what Miers thinks about such things as abortion, privacy, church-state separation, consumer rights, executive power, and human rights.

I know enough right now to be plenty worried.

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