Inner-City Despair Yields a Legacy of Crime, Crack


A lurid series of stories on crack and cocaine was appearing daily on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner. And Capt. Joseph Samuels, a black Oakland police officer, was morethan a little annoyed.

The Examiner spotlighted such unsavory characters as James Milton, whom it described as “a former general in the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang,” whose “crack gang controlled drug turfs in East Oakland’s Castlemont Corridor.” The stories traced the cocaine trail from a processing laboratory in Colombia to the birth of a crack-addicted infant in the Oakland area.

“Every now and then, whenever the newspapers there want to make people forget about what’s happening in San Francisco and all their myriad of problems, they do a little Oakland bashing,” Samuels said. “That’s what that’s about.”

Gray, grimy Oakland, across the bay from the splendor of San Francisco, is an easy target. Although half the size of San Francisco, Oakland has more murders, more rapes and more burglaries. And according to the stories in the Examiner, it has far more crack addicts.

Oakland also has twice as many blacks as San Francisco. Inevitably, as Capt. Samuels suggests, race has become closely linked in the public consciousness with crime and drugs.


Yet most experts, both in universities and on the streets, trace crime’s roots not so much to race as to poverty--a numbing condition characterized not only by a shortage of money but also by a desperate sense of helplessness and purposelessness.

Many young black males, says Sister Susanne Beaton, a Roman Catholic nun who works in a homeless shelter in Boston, find no role for them in society. They cannot find work; the national unemployment rate for black men from the age of 16 to 24 is 22.8%. Even if they are fathers, they are not welcome in their families; in most states, only single-parent families qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

“If you tell people they are nothing,” said Sister Beaton, “they will play you back a nothing song.”

UC Berkeley criminologist Elliott Currie insists that crime stems in large measure from the yearning of desperate, impoverished young people for a place in an affluent American society that teaches citizens that great material wealth is within their swift grasp.

“Poverty exacerbates it, poverty aggravates it,” says Currie. “But poverty didn’t invent this society of instant gratification.”

Race Seen as Factor

Race, too, appears to be a factor, some analysts say. Blacks make up only one-third of the nation’s poor but substantially greater shares of those who are arrested--54% of all murder suspects, for example, and 63% of those arrested for robbery. The scourge of crack cocaine is largely an inner-city phenomenon.

Almost one of every four black males in his 20s is in jail or prison or on parole or probation. Blacks are also the victims of most crime. Homicide is the leading cause of death of black males between 16 and 24.

No less a figure than the Rev. Jesse Jackson says that blacks have themselves to blame for their plight. For that reason, he says, blacks must assume responsibility for the cure.

“When all is said and done, the stopping point must come from blacks . . . ,” Jackson recently told Washington Post columnist William Raspberry. “When a basketball team keeps missing free throws, they don’t blame conditions or the rules of the game or unfair officiating. They work on analysis: timing, technique, trajectory. Well, when our team keeps making babies out of wedlock, keeps having crack-addicted babies, keeps on killing each other, it’s time for analysis.”

Demographic factors help make poor blacks more crime-prone than poor whites. Young men in cities are most likely to turn to crime and the black population as a whole is younger and more urban than the white.

Moreover, the poor black population is poorer than the poor white population. The national unemployment rate is 31.9% for black male teen-agers and 17.9% for black youths in their early 20s, more than twice the comparable rates for whites. And many young blacks in the inner city are not numbered among the unemployed, for they gave up looking for a job long ago.

“The scary thing is that we are creating more of this poverty every day and we’re creating it among a wider range of people,” Currie said. “We’re creating a terrible mess out there. No mistake about it--the conditions are getting worse.”

Crime Rate Varies

The dimensions of the problem are clear. Although the national crime rate has stayed more or less the same for the last 10 years, the rate is soaring in such major cities as New York, Washington and New Orleans. The rate has been going down, however, in the Los Angeles area.

The rate of serious crime in the United States exceeds that in all the other industrial nations. The U.S. murder rate--18,269 in 1988, more than one every 30 minutes--is three times higher than that of Canada and four times higher than that of Australia. Robberies are six times more frequent here than in West Germany and four times more frequent than in Britain.

An afternoon in the arraignment hearing room of Commissioner Morton Berg of District of Columbia Superior Court, illustrates the problem. Washington’s population is 75% black, but in a 2 1/2-hour span, all but one of the 50 or so suspects who parade before Berg are black. The exception is Latino.

There is an odd air about the swift afternoon--an atmosphere like that of British Africa in colonial days--as the procession of tattered, troubled, scowling, poor blacks plead guilty or not guilty to charges of drug possession, drug distribution, assault, armed robbery, theft, breaking in, fraud and arson.

Berg tries hard to be funny, sarcastic, kindly and clever, often all at once. But sometimes he sounds condescending. Looking at one defendant, he says: “Mr. Steele has made an improvement. He kicked heroin. He kicked cocaine. Now, all he’s holding on to is his bottle. . . . You’re getting a little long in the tooth for fooling around.”

He glares at Gloria Love, who has tested positive for drug use, and proclaims: “God, she’s flying high.” He later announces to no one in particular: “We are entering total confusion. After that, chaos. Then, anarchy.”

Drugs are perceived by many Americans as largely a black problem. The televised police crackdowns on drug markets usually take place in big-city black ghettos. Arrests for drug sales and use have doubled since 1980, and 40% of those arrested in 1988 were black.

Those who must deal with the problem, however, are equally aware of the other 60%. “The same thing that’s happening in the inner city is happening everywhere,” said James W. Wood, the deputy superintendent in charge of the Boston Police Department’s drug control unit. “But, because of the news media, nobody’s looking at these other areas.”

Suburban drug markets, Wood said, are harder to capture on film because they are more scattered and more peaceful. “Outside of Boston,” he said, “a lot of people deal drugs when you meet them on the street. But there’s no violence. They’re still using drugs in those places, but it’s not seen.”

The legacy of crack is despairing. Crack-addicted babies--100,000 are born each year--shriek and cry continually in their first months and grow into hyperkinetic children tearing apart nursery schools. Addicted women turn to prostitution to raise the money to buy more crack. Entrepreneurs kill each other with submachine guns to protect their turf. Grandmothers raise their grandchildren because the mothers are broken by crack.

There are enough “crack grandmothers” in East Oakland that the Schuman-Liles Clinic, a nonprofit mental health center, has organized a club so that a dozen can meet and talk about their similar problems.

One of these grandmothers, 60-year-old Hazel Mayfield, is a little different from the others. She is raising her great-grandchildren, boys 5 and 3. A warm, open woman, Mayfield speaks clearly and dispassionately about her troubles.

“This is my third generation of children,” she said one afternoon in the clinic. “I raised my set of children, then my daughter was having problems with her set, so I raised her daughter, who is these children’s mother. Then the mother, she got into trouble, so these children were on their way to foster homes or up for adoption. I didn’t want these children in the system. So I took them.

“I’ve had these children since the baby was 5 months old,” she said. “When I got the baby, he weighed 11 pounds. He was just about dead. The mother was on drugs. I don’t know where the mother, my granddaughter, is. . . .”

Traces Problem

William Julius Wilson, an influential University of Chicago sociologist, traces the growth of the drug-afflicted underclass both to the success of the civil rights movement and to national economic trends.

Civil rights legislation permitted many of the more prosperous blacks to move to the suburbs, leaving behind mostly those who were least-equipped to take advantage of the new opportunities. Meanwhile, many corporations moved their headquarters from cities to suburbs, and many manufacturers closed their urban plants.

Consequently, ghettos became more isolated than ever and their citizens more desperate.

Young black males “have no role to play, either publicly or privately,” said Vincent Fanelli, a volunteer who works in impoverished neighborhoods of New York. “That’s terrible. A man should have a role to play.”

Wood, the white police officer who heads Boston’s drug control unit, recognizes the difference between today’s ghettos and his own youth in a public housing project.

“I now am financially secure,” he said. I built my own house 15 years ago. I have a pool in my back yard. I have the Protestant work ethic. . . . I always worked hard.

“I don’t think a lot of kids can see that now, especially the inner-city blacks. I could see it. I could look to the future and see that I could dig a hole in my back yard and put a pool in. But I don’t think they can see that. I really don’t.”

Currie, of Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Social Change, has been interviewing juvenile offenders in a working-class community north of Berkeley.

“These young people are adapting, perhaps in an extreme way, to the values that they have learned from mainstream culture,” he said. “You can’t build this casino economy that is based on stimulating greed, on making people think that the way you become a big person or a real person or a whole person is by buying stuff and having a lot of things and looking good, without expecting all this to be picked up by people down at the bottom of the social structure.

“Drug-dealing has become part of this whole system by which young people begin to feel good about themselves, begin to gain status in the eyes of their peers. So one of the things that happens is that infringements on somebody else’s turf--taking away somebody’s drugs, making somebody look like a jerk--become cause for violence.”

Not all addicts are poor. McKinley Parker, 40, had three years of college education and a $14.50-an-hour job as a lithographer at the American Can Co. in the San Francisco area a few years ago when he heard that the plant would close in a year.

“They announced they were closing the plant, and I used that as an excuse to get high,” Parker said recently at the Salvation Army rehabilitation center in Oakland. “The problem there at American Can was they had dealers there. They gave you credit.”

Parker got so high on cocaine and missed so much work that he stopped going to the plant long before it closed. Without a job, he eventually stopped using expensive cocaine powder and turned to the cheap, addictive crack instead.

But it is mainly in the ghettos that crack seems to be everywhere. Dawn Hines, a supervisor of social workers for the department of human services in Atlanta, described what happens when a new family arrives at a public housing project.

“Almost immediately,” she said, “someone is there like the Avon salesperson or the Welcome Wagon or whatever, with a whole display of drugs. Drug of your choice.”

Crack Markets

Even if they refuse the drugs themselves, mothers sometimes accept money for use of their apartments as a crack market.

“That young lady can say no a hundred zillion times,” said Martha H. Calloway of the Atlanta Housing Authority. “But when she gets two and three months behind on her rent and they are there again with the same proposal, then she’s in a situation where she’s going to have to say yes.”

Proposed solutions to inner-city crime and drug trafficking range from tough police action to economic and social programs aimed at drawing urban blacks out of the underclass.

At one end of the spectrum, the University of Chicago’s Wilson argues that the federal government must formulate economic policies that create more jobs with higher wages. He advocates supplementing this with apprenticeships, on-the-job training, family allowances and child-care subsidies.

At the other end, most politicians find that the law-and-order theme plays better with the voters than an anti-poverty platform. “I have now signed some 90 death warrants in the state of Florida,” Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, who faces an uphill reelection campaign, boasts in a recent ad.

Police on the scene, however, believe that they can accomplish much more by becoming involved with crime-riven communities. In Tampa, Fla., police cite a community program that has encouraged poor blacks to let them know when a drug sale takes place. After police close a crack house in Oakland, they work with community groups to spruce up the neighborhood, to the point of picking up brooms and sweeping away debris.

“I’ve never been one who believes that you can solve deep crime problems by just police alone,” said Lt. Samuels of the Oakland police. “To me it’s always been a community effort involving a number of agencies, involving a number of citizens. I think the police departments that are successful in the future will be ones that recognize themselves as problem solvers rather than crime solvers.

“You don’t say give me more cars, give me more guns, give me more cops,” he said. “That’s been tried before, and it didn’t work.”

Sometimes the community takes things into its own hands. At the Mandela apartments in Boston’s poor Roxbury neighborhood, a volunteer patrol of civilians has policed the area for a year, chasing drug dealers away from the project. But the Boston police do not like what they regard as vigilante antics, and the volunteers themselves do not trust the police.

A nonprofit organization known as the National Trust has attracted some favorable attention by trying to instill a sense of self-esteem in black juvenile offenders in various cities in Florida. Although the results have not been evaluated statistically yet, police and social workers in Tampa hail the program there.

Yet all these short-range programs, valuable as they are, do not deal with the terrible poverty that underlies the crime and crack. Asked if police could ever keep crime under control if society cannot solve the other problems of poverty, Lt. Samuels replied quietly:

“My personal belief is no. That’s why I say it’s almost a long-term generational type of problem. It’s going to require improving the level of education for kids. It’s going to require that we invest the time, effort and sometimes money to make sure that everybody has at least a decent house over their heads.

“If this sounds like a liberal social point of view, I think we have to realize that we’re talking about people and nobody I know of or have ever met wants to live like these people. Nobody.”

CRIME AND RACE Arrests by race, 1988 in thousands Murder, manslaughter: White: 7,243 Black: 8,603 Rape: White: 14,775 Black: 12,853 Robbery: White: 40,072 Black: 69,130 Aggravated assault: White: 174,177 Black: 123,058 Drug violations: White: 503,125 Black: 334,015 Source: FBI