Examining Causes for Boston's Homicide Jump
ED GORDON, host:
Joining us now from Boston is Reverend Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister and community activist who co-founded the city's 10-point Coalition. The group helps stem the city's violence in the 1990s. Reverend Rivers lives next door to the four young men that were killed last week who were referenced in the piece you just heard.
Also with us from Boston, Robert Sampson, professor of social science at Harvard University. Professor Sampson has conducted studies exploring the connection between race, culture and crime in various cities across the country. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.
Professor, let me start with you. We heard from Phillip Martin the idea, if you will, of the changing of America, to a great degree the browning of America, being just one--and I underline just one--of the problems that we are seeing in terms of the escalation of violent crime, particularly murder in this country. There are so many contributing factors, though, aren't there?
Professor ROBERT SAMPSON (Harvard University): Oh, yes. A very difficult question. But I would point out the larger picture here, which is that murder last year was up only slightly, about 2 percent overall. And many of the large cities--for example, the big three: New York, LA, and Chicago--homicide continues to decline rather remarkably. So what often gets lost in these sessions is the tremendous stability or durability of a city's relative crime profile.
In the case of Boston, the violence right here has been quite low for a number of years, even during the periods of increase and decrease. So even though there is an increase, I think one needs to put it into perspective in terms of the relative low crime standing of the city. That said, there's certainly an increase and certainly a problem. I would be hesitant to blame it all on immigration. In fact, in terms of national statistics, immigration seems to be, if anything, related to lower rates of crime and violence. And some of our most diverse cities with exploding immigrant populations--Los Angeles, Chicago metropolitan area and others--again are experiencing decreases. So it is a complicated picture and one can't point to any single factor like that. And in fact I think the immigration finding is something that needs to be re-enforced because it can lead to stereotypes that suggest that specific race or ethnic groups are somehow inherently more likely to be involved in violence.
GORDON: Reverend Rivers, let me turn our attention to you and ask you. You have been involved in this fight for quite some time. I'm curious what you see as the most pervasive issue in terms of dealing with trying to eradicate the violent crime and, quite frankly, the disproportionate violent crime that affects African-American men in this country.
Reverend EUGENE RIVERS (Community Activist): I want to underscore Professor Sampson's point, which at one level is sort of obvious. One, in the case of Boston, Boston has to compete with its own success. And it has to be understood in the larger context that these increases in crime are compared with some very exceptional dips in crime that we had about 10 to 12 years ago. That's--so Professor Sampson's point, I don't think, can be emphasized enough.
For me, one piece of this is sort of the demographics. I live in the neighborhoods where a lot of the violence takes place and I've been here for 17 years. And one of the things that we began conversations about in Boston, and this was 10 years ago, is that there would be in the case of Boston, among other factors, a 24-percent increase in the number of 15-to-19-year-olds in the city minus a 24 percent increase in services and a range of other programs to absorb this population. So I think that that's a significant factor. A factor, not the factor.
I think also there is an issue that the black community, that specifically the black community has to deal with with regards to adults in communities policing and monitoring their children. And I think at the end of the day, ultimately, the black community has to have a difficult conversation around the policing and monitoring and the programming that revolves around intercepting the weakest social classes in the poorest neighborhoods in the black community, which is what I want to focus on, which includes Haitians and Cape Verdeans and then the various other subnational and ethnic groups.
GORDON: Robert Sampson, let me ask you, in relation to what Reverend Rivers just suggested, we saw the flap that Bill Cosby caused by, some people say, suggested blaming the victim, if you will. There will be others that will say that's the same kind of thought there. Yet there is a need for communities to truly take a hard look at what's going on within their boundaries. In your studies, have you seen that happening of late?
Prof. SAMPSON: Well, it's an undeniable fact that there is a concentration of violence in particular communities, especially communities that are characterized by concentration of poverty, the segregation of minority groups, but layered onto that an even more fundamental fact is that crime, particularly violence, is primarily an issue with regard to males and young people. So when you have a situation where you have the concentration, particularly of young males in neighborhoods especially with few adult role models and adult males to supervise and control, then you have a recipe for a distinct problem. So what we have is a new generation of kids, an increase in kids, yet it's not random, it tends to be this concentration of poverty that we need to pay attention to.
And I would add that today's 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, which is at the peak of a violence curve, were born to parents at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and rampant violence in the late '80s and early '90s. So there's a lot of complicated factors going on here. And I don't think that identifying some of these fundamental facts is really blaming the victim. It's more targeting where the social issues are likely to occur in trying to think creatively about effective solutions.
GORDON: Reverend Rivers, what about talking about the influx of drugs into the community, gang activity, the chronic unemployment that sits in many of these communities, and the pop culture of thug life, if you will, that is pervasive among young black men. How do you deal with that?
Rev. RIVERS: OK, in addition to the social problems, there's a cultural problem. We have, as a result of the crack epidemic and, you know, the entertainment industry, this romanticized view, vision, of criminality called thug life, which is sort of empirically an undeniable fact. I think that the poverty issue has to be discussed. But poverty is no excuse for the criminal behavior of young black males. And it's more than minorities. I mean, we're talking about black people, which is my focus. I'm going to focus on black people, right? You know, that's a major issue. There has to be an internal conversation. Their jobs--legitimate issue. But--and it has to be worked on it. But in poor communities when young black males prey on the elderly and on other young black people, I can't wait till there's a new deal before I begin to intervene and say listen, these young people have to be focused upon with a carrot-stick approach that addresses their cultural and academic needs. But, you know, we're in a crisis now. The black community--poor black community's in a crisis.
Rev. RIVERS: ...and we have to...
GORDON: Indeed, that is...
Rev. RIVERS: ...be hard. We have to be sympathetic and firm with regards to saying to the young people there'll be no tolerance for this kind of indiscriminate violence.
GORDON: All right, Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister, community activist and co-founder of the city's 10-point Coalition, and Robert Sampson, professor of social science at Harvard University. I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.
Prof. SAMPSON: Thank you.
Rev. RIVERS: Thank you.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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