Monday, May 18, 2009

Violence, the Inner City, and the American Frontier

I originally submitted this piece as part of a scholarship application to The Rockford Institute's 2009 Summer School, on the American West. It was part of an application that won a full scholarship. For more information on the Rockford Institute and this year's Summer School, please click here. The essay prompt was: "Defend or Refute: American inner-city violence is a legacy of the violent American frontier."

The American Frontier was confronted by many of the same problems that the inner city is plagued with today. The Frontier was populated by families who had a strong sense of tribal identity that led, when challenged, to a certain culture of violence. The Frontier was abandoned or only loosely patrolled by the law in a policy of salutary neglect. Finally, the Frontier was made up of raw nature and temporary buildings. People were given neither the time nor the ability to care about the place where they lived. So too we see the blacks in the inner-city today: overwhelmed by a culture of black-on-black violence, neighborhoods loosely patrolled by cops who want to avoid the most violent crimes, and crumbling concrete structures that stand as a legacy to white flight. The times may not have changed, but the remedy is still the same.

But before we can examine that remedy, we need to understand the problems more concretely. Who was it that populated the Frontier? People who wanted a fresh start. People who wanted to make their fortune. People who wanted to escape the cities. And, of course immigrants, who wanted all these things. You can take the immigrant out of the Old World, but you can’t take the Old World out of the immigrant. As these groups of settlers gathered in various cities, they found comfort in surrounding themselves with their religion, their culture, and their own people. When any of these things were attacked, they reacted just as they had for centuries in the Old World – with violence. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers: “Only in a culture of honor would it have occurred to the irascible gentleman that shooting someone was an appropriate response to a personal insult”. With law enforcement slowly building up – or more often, run by those of your own ethnicity – who was to question the law of the strong?

Yet, it is precisely the law of the weak that has prevailed in America’s inner city public schools, the harbinger of news for the next generation of inner-city violence. Overcome by violence, metal detectors at entrances, and staggering dropout rates, these schools bleed the best teachers year in and year out. The least able student becomes the common denominator for the rest of the class, and everyone loses. Without education and learning there are no acolytes for cultural change. The reason that many black Americans are deaf to the writings of Michael Eric Dyson or the legitimate criticisms of Bill Cosby is precisely because they lack the honesty to confront that they, like the men and women of the frontier were, are responsible for their own destiny. If the schools are bad, they have to take charge. If the crime bred by lack of jobs and opportunities dominates their neighborhoods, they have to be their own police, not their own enablers. And if the whites have fled to their comfortable fake-country-homes in suburbia because they too, lacked the courage to fight for a place worth living for and have instead exchanged it for neighborhoods where nobody knows your name, then it is in the black community’s greatest interest to take back these cities, often filled with beautiful, pre-Modernist architecture, at half their market values. This would all be fantasizing if the black community was not possessed of financial resources not available to the Frontier settlers: black entertainers.

Black entertainers dominate our culture in every aspect – from sports, to acting, to music. We’ve even exalted Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, mediocre writers by any standard, to dizzying heights precisely because some new Harlem Renaissance has been imagined (the “poem” read at the Inauguration demonstrates how false this is, but that is for another paper, on lies we tell ourselves). Blacks can even now look to a black President. Yet, where is the change in their community? Bill Maher was interviewing Sean “P. Diddy” Combs some weeks after the election and he said something to the effect of, “Now that you have won the Presidency, can you sing about more constructive things than having sex with hoes, buying cars, and being better than others”? Sean Combs laughed and said, “Yeah, we’re straight now.” But we all laughed too, because we knew that wasn’t true. All of the black superstars who have “made it” have tragically lacked the ability to see beyond themselves. Having been raised in a culture that begged for escape and rewarded those who “made it out,” these entertainers, except for a few token examples, have not gone back to reinvest in their community. They invest in yachts, diamond-studded teeth, fancy cars, nice clothes – anything but the community that needs more than entertainers if is ever to make a contribution to the permanent things. As long as the black community doesn’t understand that the way forward is to understand the shortcomings of their past and not to live in the fantasy of their present, their worst problems will continue as endemic, and metastasize with the new rising Hispanic minority, which shares many of the same educational problems.

How did the Wild West stop being “wild”? Civilization came. Law and order finally overcame the law of the tribe and the law of the strong. People built places worth caring about and which they didn’t want to see shot up or burned in senseless brawls. Schools, churches, and parks were built. People took charge of their future, block by block, brightening their corner of the world. The solution to the problem of violence in the inner city starts in the same way – block by block, person by person – but it can only begin when the community realizes that enough is enough, and that just as an ordered soul creates an ordered space around it, so too the disordered world will create disordered souls. When this community decides to take the “souls of black folk” back the end of the beginning will be accomplished.

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