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The Fire in Our Ghettos Still Burns : In a Little-to-Lose World, Crime Replaces the '60s Protest

August 15, 1989|JEROME H. SKOLNICK | Jerome H. Skolnick is a professor in the jurisprudence and social policy program at UC Berkeley Law School. He was director of the 1969 task force on violent aspects of protest and confrontation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

By June, 1969, the '60s had gone into history as the decade of protest and civil disorder. Bitter and divisive race riots shook dozens of cities from Los Angeles to Detroit to Newark. Protest against American involvement in Vietnam had become so familiar that it had almost acquired the status of an institution. We researchers were asked to explain why protest, confrontation and violence had become, in the words of black activist H. Rap Brown, "as American as apple pie"

By comparison, there wasn't much fear of crime in the early '60s. In fact, the nation's prisons had empty beds in the middle of the decade. This is not to suggest that crime wasn't an issue. But as a recent Gallup Poll showed, the public was not so nearly frustrated then with what it now sees as an impotent and ineffective criminal-justice system.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 1989 Home Edition Opinion Part 5 Page 4 Column 5 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to a transcription error, an Aug. 15 Op-Ed article by UC Berkeley law Prof. Jerome H. Skolnick on a possible connection between the decline in 1960s-style civil disorder and the rise in ghetto crime today contained the following statement: I believe that crime became what we sociologists call a "fundamental alternative." The phrase should have read "functional alternative."

The war protests ended with our withdrawal from Vietnam. And civil disorder in the ghettos of the nation also came to an end. It was forcibly suppressed.

As protest and civil disorder declined, the crime rate rose precipitously. Prison populations were to double in the 1970s and triple in the '80s even as increasingly punitive sentencing laws were supposed to raise the price of crime. California, for example, officially shifted the purpose of imprisonment from rehabilitation to punishment.

But could there be a connection, an explanation for the inverse correlation between the decline in civil disorder and the rise in crime? I suggest there is. I believe that crime became what we sociologists call a "fundamental alternative." That is, crime began to replace protest and civil disorder to express the alienation and frustration felt particularly by underclass black youth who were relegated to the economic side streams of American society.

From the perspective of the larger society, the connection between the suppression of civil disorder and the rise of crime lay in the failure of the polity to heed clear warnings.

The commissions that studied the civil disorders and protests of the 1960s--the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence--were largely composed of moderate and Establishment figures who could scarcely be described as political radicals. Otto Kerner was governor of Illinois and a product of its politics. Milton Eisenhower, the former President's brother, was a distinguished educator. The executive directors, David Ginsberg of the Kerner Commission and Lloyd Cutler of the Violence Commission, were prominent Washington lawyers whose firms represented major U.S. corporations. The findings of the commissioners and their staffs were not all of a piece, but they all recognized that the ghettos of America were in crisis. Perhaps the most famous and disturbing conclusion was from the Kerner Report: "What white Americans have never fully understood--but what the Negro can never forget--is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it."

The ghetto has never offered much opportunity to its residents. The Kerner Report observed that a large proportion of riot participants were young, between 15 and 24 years old. Since the end of World War II, this is the age group in the black community that has experienced extraordinarily high unemployment rates, often around 50%. This age group is also responsible for a disproportionately high crime rate. For many of these kids, crime and drug-dealing have become a way of life.

Although the causal relationship between crime and employment opportunity is complex, there is no question that there is one. People who have reasonably well-paying jobs are less likely to commit crimes than those who don't. Employment is a form of social control. Its responsibilities discipline one's daily rounds. It also supports family life. But jobless youth--who tend to be impetuous, who engage in male bonding activities that we call gangs--are more likely than other jobless people to be free from ordinary social constraints. Nor are they likely to be deterred by the threat of imprisonment, partly because they are not rational cost-benefit calculators, partly because the threat is not entirely credible, but mostly because they have few alternatives. The threat of imprisonment can be assimilated by even a rational risk assessor who has little to lose and much to gain by a life of crime, especially the entrepreneurial activity of drug marketing.

The commissions of the 1960s did caution the nation about its underlying social needs, but today we see an increasing emphasis on the symbolism of repression--curfews, sweeps, boot camps, death penalty, more prisons. Just as economists observe that there is no free lunch, sociologists warn that there is no costless social neglect. "The Politics of Protest," my report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, concludes by saying: "A democratic society cannot depend upon force as its recurrent answer to longstanding and legitimate grievances. This nation cannot have it both ways: Either it will carry through a firm commitment to massive and widespread social reform, or it will develop into a society of garrison cities where order is enforced without due process of law and without the consent of the governed." Twenty years later, I wouldn't change a word.

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