Special Roundtable: Blacks and Violent Crime

The conversation about blacks and violent crime continues with John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow in Public Policy, and Tommie Rivers, a facilitator and consultant at the Amer-I-Can Foundation.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

John McWhorter is a Manhattan Institute Senior fellow in public policy and Tommie "T-Top" Rivers is a facilitator and consultant at the Amer-I-Can Foundation in Los Angeles. He also does gang outreach and helps people in and out of the prison system improve their standard of living.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Public Policy, Manhattan Institute): Thank you.

Mr. TOMMIE RIVERS (Facilitator, Consultant, Amer-I-Can Foundation): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, Tommie, does any of these surprised you?

Mr. RIVERS: The statistics? No, I wouldn't say it surprises me at all. I would just really, you know, look at the solution part of these findings that we have, you know, with the Amer-I-Can program. What we teach is the responsibility to self-determination and that all starts with individuals finding themselves in delivering truth. We're not looking at truth when looking at these stats because once we look at them with their action's taking, are really - are feudal steps. It still haven't been progressed upon and we really haven't dealt with the true issues that need to be addressed to bring the true stat number down.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tommie, let me ask you this. Some people look at African-Americans committing crime against other African-Americans as a factor of economics, a factor, as you're saying, of lack of self-awareness, a factor of internalized racism. What do you ascribe it to?

Mr. RIVERS: All of the above. You know, it's systematically designed. One has to look at the lack of opportunities, the lack of tools that are presented in our urban societies to these individuals. And when we're not blessed with the right tools and opportunities to better one's self, then ultimately, what happens you have igneous(ph) or faced with igneous, and that brings destruction.

CHIDEYA: All right. John, what do you think? Self-determination? What's the cause and what's the solution?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I obviously think that self-determination is important and organizations like that one are absolutely crucial. But I find that when you actually look at studies of the situation in terms of employment for people with low skills, young black man, it's very difficult to find evidence that the jobs are not out there. And I refer to people like Alfred Young(ph), Lawrence Mead(ph), Demetrius Smith-Nightingale(ph). There's really quite a bit.

It's really more of a matter of people not knowing where to look for the jobs. It's a matter of connecting young men with low skills to jobs that are there. And so I think, in a way, there's a little more hope in that because, I think, that sometimes our conversation is that until the low-skilled Ford plant factory jobs come back, then this is just what we're stuck with. And luckily, I don't think that's true. But I also think that when we look at solutions to this sort of thing, prisoner reentry programs are absolutely vital because a lot of this problem has to do with people no knowing where to go when they're just back out of prison. And I think that if we could fix that prisoner reentry problem, then a lot more young boys would have fathers because a lot of this problem is that these guys grew up in broken homes, and we need to fix that too.

But I don't think that it's a matter if there is no work for the men out there. It's that there's a disconnect between what's there and what they know how to look for and what they're taught to look for.

CHIDEYA: Erika, I know that you're working on the statistics side more.

Ms. HARRELL: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: But what do you think hearing what these two gentlemen have just said?

Ms. HARRELL: Well, at BJS, we don't really look at the reasons as to why. We have - in our annual reports, we have seen that income and age and urbanicity(ph) are very much related to the exposure to violent victimization. However, we - whether or not blacks are more likely than other racial groups to be younger or to be - in households with lower incomes, we didn't look at that in this report.

CHIDEYA: So when you say urbanicity, you mean people who live in cities?

Ms. HARRELL: Yes.

CHIDEYA: And that's a risk factor?

Ms. HARRELL: We stated in some of our annual reports that - and also in this report, we stated - we found that blacks who live in urban areas were more likely than those in suburban or rural areas to be victims of violence.

CHIDEYA: Tommie?

Mr. RIVERS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Cities have a lot of wonderful things, wonderful community, culture, all of these things. But the idea of urbanicity, a word I hadn't even heard before today, what do cities bring as a special set of problems to the work that you do and trying to keep people out of the crime game?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, I'll just say, the Amer-I-Can program was the greatest product of social change. It's the missing link in today's society. I don't want to put so much ownership on the other end of this because of what I believe. I honestly know that one has - I'm a graduate of the Amer-I-Can program, first of all, and have gone on to be a facilitator, so I know that that product is something that helps individuals identify and change their mindsets from negative to positive. And that's one of the first things that we have to look at. It doesn't matter what situation you put individuals in, whether people have money or whether we even show them that - give them the resources for the jobs, but if they're not educated - and we haven't broken down that cycle of negative - and change those old habits and routines and replace them positive things, then none of that works.

CHIDEYA: But let me just jump in to the, again, to the point of being urban. There's crime in rural areas too. But is there something about the density of cities, the ways in which people are asked to claim a certain set that affects people's ability or willingness to change and willingness to really redirect their lives?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, you have to look at - you look in Africa, you see different tribes and individuals over there, and it's the same here in Los Angeles. You have tribes and communities, individuals who are raised in a certain environment to where they're products of the environment. They have not even seen other things outside of their community, let alone what TV and radio has shown our kids. So they're out of touch and out of sync with self and culture. So what we believe - culture does not even matter in today's society. It's really about survival of fittest.

Mr. McWHORTER: You know, something, Farai…

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Mr. McWHORTER: …I think, would help in this situation as well. When we look at these sorts of things happening and the inevitable spike that you see every summer, we also have to think about the fact that a lot of these killings are connected with turf wars, having to do with the drug trade. You know, if it's not exactly that, then it can be traced to that some nightclub taunt, you know, these sorts of things that happen. And it really does make me consider, and I think, and to make other people consider, the very fact that you can make a descent living on the street-filling drugs that are illegal. Maybe they should not be illegal. All of this is a clear argument for discontinuing this ridiculous war on drugs that has such an effect on our communities.

CHIDEYA: You're bringing up these very large policy issues, reentry, the illegality of drugs and, of course, other nations have other laws. How do you move, though, from the ground level reality of statistics to the kind of policy debate you're talking about?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, these things are, first, a matter of just chipping away and getting out certain opinions and hoping to see change. It's also a matter of realizing that the sorts of things that we talk about during this segment are precisely what helping black America overcome in real way are about. I think if sometimes people think that there's going to be some big march somewhere and the whole world is going to turn upside down when actually it's prisoner reentry issues, it's the drug laws, it's gun control, and the obvious nexus theories between that and all of these, which are the revolution today. And I think if all of us can get together on these things instead of focusing on certain more dramatic sorts of things, then I think that we could actually get a lot done.

CHIDEYA: Tommie, the Amer-I-Can program is addressing problems that are very much of an individual who needs to realize his own destiny. How do you relate to these larger issues of how the laws work, how society works, how the employment system works? What does Amer-I-Can teach people about how to interrelate with politics, with economics?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, the Amer-I-Can - as I've said before, the Amer-I-Can program deals with responsibility of self-determination. And once an individual finds his self and understand his true place and purpose in society, that allows him to be able to go out into a society and be able to adapt and communicate and deal with individuals on another level.

But before - let me just say, before I was - had the tools of the Amer-I-Can program, I wouldn't even feel comfortable in the setting because I - it was out of my element. You know what I mean? Once I was equipped with the tools through Amer-I-Can program, it allowed me to find myself. We have 15-chapter - we have a 15-chapter, 60-hour curriculum dealing with the responsibility of self-determination, dealing with family support.

We all have a place and purpose, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drug, alcohol abuse, family relationships, we deal with many, many different components in here. Goal-setting, decision making. And that allows individuals to empower themselves and do some productive in society.

CHIDEYA: John, you get the last word. How likely - some of the things you bring up, it's not new, the idea of making illegal drugs legal or regulated. Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore had been saying that, years ago. But how far down the road will that even be a policy debate because right now, to be honest, it doesn't seem as if it's anything except on the fringes?

Mr. McWHORTER: Yeah, Farai, and I'm not going to put pretty words together and pretend that that isn't true. Unfortunately, I think there's a certain small mindedness and a certain Puritanism that's going to keep that one from getting on the table. Realistically, I think that the prisoner reentry issue is actually kind of cresting right now. There's action in Congress. Believe it or not, President Bush has been behind it and has actually stayed behind it. And I think if we could fix that kink - this business of people going in and out of prison and never being prepared to deal with real life, then we could see a real difference in black communities in a way that could actually be done.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, lady and gentlemen, going to have to wrap it up here. Thank you so much.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. HARRELL: Thank you.

Mr. RIVERS: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So John McWhorter is a senior fellow in Public Policy at the Manhattan Institute. He joined us from NPR's New York studios. Erika Harrell is the author of a recent study on violent crime put out by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And Tommie "T-Top" Rivers is a facilitator and consultant at Amer-I-Can Foundation. He joined me here at the studios at NPR West.

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