America practices socialism with corporations and capitalism with single mothers in our inner cities.” No, this wasn’t said by a raging liberal, or by a protesting activist on a city street, but by conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough. He was speaking with regard to the violence and conflagration that erupted in Baltimore last week. Conservatives and liberals alike have noted that while the nation has invested more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, such an investment in our nation’s inner cities would be unthinkable or, at best, viewed with skepticism.
Yet, circumstances are making it clear that such reluctance has to end.
Just last summer, some political leaders in Baltimore, along with other prominent individuals and observers in the city, warned that Baltimore was on the verge of erupting into violence due to festering systemic problems. Their prophecy, as we have witnessed, came true.
As in many of our large urban cities, the issues have been festering for decades. For example, data published by the FBI indicates whites commit 69.3 percent of all crimes, while blacks commit 28.1 percent (not the general media stereotype). Yet 2010 figures show that black men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. In the heart of America’s biggest cities this tragic pattern has been played out year after year in arrest patterns. It has recently been on vivid display, as video of Freddie Gray in Baltimore being limply dragged into a police van for having a knife in his pocket, and of Eric Garner being smothered to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. It’s now quite clear that men of color are seen as men of danger regardless of the triviality of the offense.
Into this mix are added entrenched joblessness, poverty, blight and mal-education that have allowed many of our urban centers to become places that would be strangely familiar to English novelist Charles Dickens.
The problems seem intractable. A 1997 public policy study noted that: “They [the urban poor] are segregated and detached from the labor market. Demand for their skills at manual labor has declined … They face discrimination in employment and housing … They live in a social milieu that reinforces detachment from the mainstream economy … Segregation has separated the inner-city poor physically from employment opportunities … Their communities do not generate new businesses.”
Almost 20 years later there has been little change. It seems time has stood still in many of these communities it seems. What can be done?
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus became famous in Iraq and Afghanistan as an architect of the clear, build and hold strategy: Clear the area of enemy insurgents, build up the infrastructure, which in turn provides jobs employing able-bodied young men who would otherwise be idle and prone to being destructive elements, and then set in place sufficient safeguards to ensure the transformed area thrives. As was said before, vast sums were invested in this effort and for the most part it proved successful. I believe we can do the same with our depressed inner cities.
Clear. First, let’s establish that the people who live in distressed urban areas are not enemies: they’re Americans. If there are violent, hardened criminals in these places, arrest and remove them. For the non-violent offenders, set in place creative and innovative practices that can help address their behavior while, to the greatest extent possible, keeping them connected to their communities. It is vital to understand that the absence of adult males in inner cities is one of the central problems to the communities’ dysfunction. Rather than seeing inner-city men as a problem or plague to be eradicated, let’s make them part of the solution.
Build. Unemployment in many urban areas for black and Hispanic men is often at least double the overall national average, a recipe for pure disaster. Again, borrowing from the Gen. Petraeus playbook, let’s set in place infrastructure and revitalization plans that employ the unemployed, in turn giving skills to those without. During the summers put underutilized teens to work and help inculcate habits and soft skills that will facilitate them becoming contributing and hopeful adults, incubating a belief that their future has potential.
Hold. This is where myriad black leaders within the community have to ensure that revitalization and change are more than just a momentary cry when tragedy or crisis comes. They have to be the motivating instruments that help ensure the whole local community, along with state and federal officials, are constantly held to account for sustaining the financial and organizational resources necessary to effect change.
The United States is the preeminent military power in the world. No other nation comes close. This is because of a sustained, decades-long investment to make sure it stays on the cutting edge. Let’s get serious about dedicating that type of investment and commitment to transforming our distressed communities to make them the envy of world.