Monday, January 18, 2010

African Americans and Crime After Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Katherine Scardino 

I wish I had time to research all the statistics that would answer this: Has the situation of the average African-American family improved since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the nation about his dream? I would venture that the answer is a resounding “no."

Let me speak from my own experience since I started practicing law in 1984 -- some 25 or so years from the launch of the Civil Rights movement. That should have been enough time for black Americans to digest the teachings of Dr. King -- and for white Americans to make an honest attempt at understanding the plight of our citizens who are not “WASPS.”

When I entered the legal field, it was in an area with one of the nation's highest crime rates, representing indigent defendants -- adults and juveniles. I can state without a doubt that there was a much higher percentage of African-American defendants than any other ethnic group. The majority of the cases did not involve the commission of a violent crime. Most of the crimes, at least from my experience, involved theft, burglary and drugs. I believe that is still the case today. 

I am still waiting for someone to ask -- and answer -- the core questions: Why? Why can't we fix this problem? Exactly what causes this problem? I think most of us know and accept that poverty is a root cause of crime in all aspects of life and with all ethnic groups. And we also know that the great majority of African Americans experience poverty at some period during their lifetimes. Poverty is defined by the federal government as a family of four with an annual income of about $16,000 or less. Dire poverty is defined by the government as a family with income one-half that of the poverty level. 

I am not, repeat not, saying that just because a citizen of our country is experiencing poverty means that we can expect that person to turn to crime as a means to exist. I grew up in dire poverty for most of my childhood, and never once did I ever think about committing a crime to feed myself. But, then, I lived in an era where front doors were never locked; neighbors helped each other, and families consisted of a working father (even if that meant a father who went to the fields to farm every day), a mother who stayed at home and took care of the children, and the children were respectful and helpful. All children went to school, regardless of their economic status in the community.

And, in my humble opinion, therein lies the problem that even the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not resolve. Education is the key to winning over poverty. Somehow, over the last fifty years, we have forgotten that children belong in school during school hours and on school days. Children do not get to choose whether they go to school or not. Children do not get to say no to school. That is not their choice. But that assumes there are parents around. We have lost the family structure that held it all together -- and our society has suffered. One of the repercussions of this lack of structure, the loss of the family, the ability of parents to set rules and demand obedience from children is what we now call our “high crime rate”.

I read articles written by intelligent people who portend to have answers to solve our societal problems. But I have yet to hear one person in some form of authority to state that education is the key to the solution, and here is what we are going to do about it in our community. Yes, we have schools. Of course we have schools, but look at them. We have teachers who are barely paid above minimum wage (perhaps this is a slight exaggeration), and who are not able to discipline our children. That means the children rule, and not the teachers. So, now we have the parents, or lack thereof, in the home who are not “ruling” -- establishing and teaching their children ethics and morals, and then add to that situation the teachers who have to put up with unruly, disrespectful students in the classroom who are well aware that no one can really discipline them. I have come in contact with various schoolteachers over the last 26 years, and yes, some of that contact has been as teachers as defendants, but invariably, the teachers complain that they cannot discipline. Is there anyone who really, really believes that you can impress an unruly, rude child with a speech? Further, the teachers now even admit to “teaching to the TAKS test”. That means they do not have any other curriculum other than to get these kids passing this test. And, now in Texas, we see headlines in newspapers discussing whether teachers should be fired because their students are not passing this blasted test. Somewhere we have lost our sight of the long term goal with children and education.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that education was a key.He knew that one of the reasons he rose to his stature was because he had the education to communicate with other educated people in authority. He did not resort to crime. He was too busy as a young person going to school so he could make a real change.

Other than the lack of education, young teens today have to deal with the lure of drugs.One of my young black defendants told me that he committed a crime because he wanted to buy a gold chain just like his buddies had. I asked him how his buddies were able to buy their gold chain. My young client told me that they sold dope on the street corner after school. So, that’s what he did, too. This is the same story, over and over. The cycle of poverty, crime and drugs must end. 

So, as we honor one of our most revered Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us all not forget that he is the best role model for all children. Dr. King went to school.He did not commit crimes.He did not use drugs. He gained the respect of America. Thank you, Dr. King. We will try and make you proud. But, we truly need help. We wish you were still here.


FleaStiff said...

I've heard that I have a dream phrase over and over, but have no idea what that dream was.
Education? Schools are the equivalent of forcing an adult to spend eight hours a day at the motor vehicle bureau! We speak of low salaries for teachers but that is often a myth, throwing money at a problem is rarely the solution, ... and giving teachers lifetime jobs is hardly conducive to good quality performance, particularly since teachers are an anachronism equivalent to buggy whips in this day and age of high adult literacy and low cost books.
Drug laws? If we don't enforce drug laws in this country what on earth are you going to do with all those cops, prosecutors, judges and prison guards?
Poverty? Hah! Once cars were made fair game for police departments to seize as bounties, drug enforcement against those with stable work histories when up dramatically. Most drug users have jobs!

Katherine Scardino said...

You, young man, have no clue of which you speak. You obviously have never sat down and had a conversation with a person who lives in a cardboard box because he has no education to work and decided that using drugs dulled the pain for a few hours. Your stomach has obviously never growled from real hunger. The most difficult thing you sound like you have ever done is wait a day or so to buy your next video game. I love a good debate but make it realistic.

Leah said...

Poverty is only part of the problem. Choices and priority are the other. I have seem plenty of these kids [and adults] with gold chains and rings who choose to buy them rather than food. Those who use food stamps to buy food and their cash for jewelry & drugs.

There is plenty of opprotunity for minorities to get a free education but they choose not to take advantage of that. Part of the problem lies with laziness & lack of ambition. Part of the problem is history repeating itself.

As for the TAKs test....I teach mathematics at Sylvan Learning Center in East Texas. Back in October we got a state contract {SES} to teach high school kids math for a specipic number of hours SO THEY CAN PASS THE TAKs TEST. I have mostly black students and a few spanish and they are all very intelligent and have a high aptitude for mathematics and learning and only need tutoring support because they don't have textbooks they can take home and do homework. One textbook per desk and each desk has approximately six students in it each day. So, where is all the money that is budgeted for education going?? And then there are the students that just don't give a rats rear end about themselves or their education. I have not one single student that is literally starving and I doubt there are that many in our society. But, there are ample resources for those that want it.

Soobs said...

Lack of a two parent family, rewards for unwed parents, rewards for not working, lack of parents CARING whether their children are in school, GREED on the part of school administrators (at least in Detroit), taking the "easy way" (drug dealing, stealing)....all of these make for the situation today. All of this can be easily remidied, IF people really gave a crud about moral issues.

Unfortunately, the "hand out" generation, doesn't.

TH Meeks said...

If you have not read Jonathan Kozol's book about education in American, Savage Inequalities, I highly recommend it. It explains how the funding system works, and describes in detail what it's like to go to school in a poor neighborhood.

My experience with my son's public school, which was in an affluent neighborhood, was not that the teachers were unable to discipline. It was the one-size-fits-all philosophy they applied, which was only exacerbated by the testing requirements in place. Not all kids learn the same way. Not all kids in one classroom (stuffed full of 30 kids) are at the same level, academically or socially. I can only imagine how these issues are magnified in schools with fewer resources.

Don said...

I grew up with a father around, it was just mom, sis, and I. They divorced when I was two. We lived in a number of places that weren't very nice to live in, including some projects in Dallas/Oak Cliff. The schools in those areas were probably about the same as the schools in those areas now. Mom put down the law about school and working for a living. Mom was always working, whatever kind of work she could get. Sis started working as soon as she could, and the same for me. I wasn't the best student, but I did well enough to keep mom from busting my butt. As soon as I graduated, off to the Army I went, to learn a trade.

While I sympathize with anyone that has grown up in those conditions, the tools are there to get out. You have to want to, you have to put in the time and effort. Crime was not an option, hard work wasn't either. I met a lot of men in the Army with a similar story, and the reasons were the same, get out of that life, and for many, take the family with them.

As for class sizes growing up, they were packed, but you could still learn if you wanted. I guess I've said enough about this. Not everyone makes it out, but if they try, they won't stay in the same spot. Just my opinion.