British prime minister Tony Blair has just broken one of the biggest taboos in Western politics: talking frankly about black crime. Give the man a medal for courage. And then ask why American pols are unable to summon such backbone in addressing the biggest impediment holding back poor black Americans: out-of-control crime rates and the gangsta culture that gives rise to criminality, problems that will be with us long after Don Imus is sent into belated retirement.
A wave of teen black-on-black murders has struck London over the last two months. Most recently, a horde of 12 black boys attacked a 14-year-old aspiring rapper with baseball bats and knives in an apartment lobby on Good Friday, killing the boy, Paul Erhahon, and seriously wounding his 15-year-old friend. Officials have charged a 13-year-old and 14-year-old with murder; the mother of the younger suspect laughed and joked during a recent court proceeding. The family of the surviving victim has received threats since the stabbing, which appears to be gang-related. Since February, nine teenagers have been shot or stabbed to death in London and other British cities.
Politicians and “community leaders” have two usual responses to such crime: ignoring it or blaming poverty and racism. Silence is eminently safe; changing the subject to poverty wins you political sensitivity points from media and cultural elites. But Tony Blair has undergone what he calls a “lurching into total frankness” in the final weeks of his premiership. And so he’s thrown out the usual politician’s playbook and spoken the truth: The violence will not end “by pretending it is not young black kids doing it,” he said yesterday in a lecture in Cardiff, Wales. The spate of killings isn’t part of a generalized crime wave, Blair said, but results from the behavior of black youth. Even more astounding than his willingness to name the violent-crime phenomenon was his rejection of the acceptable explanations for it. “We need to stop thinking of this as a society that has gone wrong—it has not—but of specific groups that for specific reasons have gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct towards others and need by specific measures to be brought back into the fold,” he observed.
In the past, Blair has also fingered the real “root cause” of so much underclass criminality: the breakdown in marriage. Without fathers in their lives, he has said, boys will be more at risk for antisocial behavior. He made the same point yesterday: the crime epidemic has “to do with the fact that particular youngsters are being brought up in a setting that has no rules, no discipline, no proper framework around them.” And in case his audience still didn’t get the point, he rejected the usual excuse for black crime. “Economic inequality is a factor and we should deal with that,” Blair noted, “but I don’t think it’s the thing that is producing the most violent expression of this social alienation.”
The problem with the crime taboo is that it leaves untouched a culture that puts law-abiding black citizens—the majority of blacks—at risk. The crime taboo allows a subset of that population to destroy the hopes and lives of others. Blair called on the many upstanding black leaders and parents to take on the gang culture: “The black community—the vast majority of whom in these communities are decent, law-abiding people horrified at what is happening—need to be mobilized in denunciation of this gang culture that is killing innocent young black kids.”
Blair also recognized in his speech that stronger policing is the best solution to violent crime. The police and prosecutors need to focus intensively on the youths behind the recent gun and knife attacks, he said, and take the leaders “out of circulation.”
The victim lobby of course struck back hard, denouncing Blair’s call for more assertive policing and demanding more antipoverty funding. Yet in a sign that Britain may contain pockets of sanity still unthinkable in the U.S., the ordinarily PC Commission for Racial Equality stood by Blair’s remarks, saying that people “shouldn’t be afraid to talk about this issue for fear of sounding prejudiced.”
America contains its share of lame-duck politicians at the moment—the mayor of New York City and the president of the United States come to mind. If they want to leave a legacy of leadership, they could do worse than following Tony Blair’s lead in tackling the most pressing urban problem.
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