The Magazine

Crime's Up

An old issue is about to resurface.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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Some cultural factors, many of them peculiar to inner-city African-American neighborhoods, may also explain the increase in crime. During the 1990s, clergy-police partnerships like Boston's TenPoint Coalition, coupled with neighborhood organizations sick of violence, created room for what University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson refers to as the "decent" culture of working, churchgoing, upwardly mobile inner-city residents. But the decent culture seems to be receding.

Policies that lock up enormous numbers of black men have produced resentment in many communities when convicts return home even worse than when they went in. A gang-backed "stop snitching" grass-roots "advertising" campaign replete with websites, DVDs, and T-shirts has intimidated witnesses around the country.

"What you're seeing here is intense alienation," Anderson told me. "And it's gotten worse." He contends that increased immigration--both legal and illegal--has also helped to displace young African-American males "who look like criminals" and thus "don't get hired" when they make efforts to join the legitimate economy.

Bratton has an even more dismal assessment. "In the 1980s, we were seeing a lot of violence around the drug trade, but the younger generation seems to engage in a lot more wanton violence. . . . To some extent, it's the super-predator complex," he says, referring to a theory proffered by William Bennett and John DiIulio that a rising tide of youngsters growing up in "moral poverty" would swamp the nation in violence.

Weighing these factors and responding to them will take time and research but, at the moment, nothing appears likely to reverse the trends leading to increased crime. And, of course, after years of decline, crime was bound to go up eventually. Nonetheless, social concern over rising crime played a major role in every presidential election from 1960 until 1992. Since 1996, however, dropping crime rates have taken criminal violence off the political agenda. Any politician who wants to look like a prophet would do well to start talking about crime. We aren't in a crisis yet, but, without action, crime will come back as a political issue.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.