Violence In America

The key to controlling youthful male violence lies not in legislation or police or prisons but in the family.

THESE PROBLEMS WERE NATION- al in scope, but they were most severe in black America, particularly in urban ghettos. By the early 1990s there were some black neighborhoods in which two-thirds or more of all families were headed by single mothers and three-quarters of all births were illegitimate. Conservatives attributed this trend to welfare: Programs like Aid for Families with Dependent Children had backfired by permitting black women to “marry the state,” secure in the knowledge that others would pay for their children. Liberals countered that welfare benefits were in no sense overly generous and that family formation and stability required good jobs that deindustrialization, government cutbacks, union decline, automation, retrenchment, and global competition had made increasingly hard to find. In 1990 the City of New York announced an examination for prospective sanitation workers, starting salary twenty-three thousand dollars, no high school diploma required. More than a hundred thousand people signed up to compete for two thousand positions.

Regardless of who or what is to blame for family decline, it is clear enough that the endemic violence of inner cities is closely related to their numbers of illegitimate children and single-parent households. Young black men growing up without fathers and into adult lives without families are in a sense twice single and a good deal more than twice as likely to become involved in shootouts or run afoul of the law.

All of this has been compounded by the everyday realities of ghetto life: social isolation, abnormal demography, and the omnipresence of guns, alcohol, drugs, and vice. These problems helped make the white frontier boomtowns of the nineteenth century into violent hot spots, and they have done the same for black ghettos. In fact, except for the apparent paradox that the ratio of men to women is low in the inner city whereas it was high on the frontier, in an important sense ghettos are the raw frontiers of modern American life, the primary arenas in which the recurrent problem of youthful male violence continues to be played out.


Calling ghettos in the decaying hearts of big cities frontiers may seem odd, but it is not anachronistic. When the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, toured Chicago’s Ida B. Wells public housing project in 1993 (accompanied by a security patrol), he found what he saw to be “almost like a western frontier.” Local residents began calling North Kenwood, also in Chicago, “the Wild West.” The founders of Jamaican drug gangs took their generic name, posses, from Western films. And one youthful New York City drug dealer evoked the analogy when he went upstate in search of sweeter profits and softer markets. “There’s more opportunity in Buffalo,” he explained. “You know back in the days when you went West to claim gold? Buffalo’s like that.”

A good analogy, like a good argument, should not be pushed too hard. There are also important differences between the frontier and the ghetto. Far more ghetto youth are illegitimate, hence undersocialized, and unemployed, hence unproductive in the legitimate economy, than were settlers along the nonagricultural frontier. If the dominant pattern of frontier vice was work and spree, that of ghetto vice is often hustle and spree, which adds another dimension of crime and degradation to the violence surrounding the vice industry. The dollars miners and cowboys spent on liquor and prostitutes were at least come by honestly.


Historical sources (as opposed to, say, the novels of Larry McMurtry) make it clear that there was less sociopathic violence on the frontier. The reasons people did have for killing—nobody calls me that, goddamn skulking savages, coolies take our wages—may seem lamentable to modern eyes, but at least they were reasons. Settlers were not much worried that a kid with a gun and no regard for human life would mow them down while rampaging after someone else. People were not, in fact, much worried about kids at all.

They are now. One of the most disturbing and politically explosive aspects of innercity violence, terrifying to blacks and whites alike, has been the rapid increase of felonious crime and gunplay among unsupervised inner-city youths, not excluding children. Miami’s Chief of Police, Donald Warshaw, has encountered ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds “running around with guns and drugs, and when we track down their parents, we find they are on drugs too. It’s out of control.”

CRIME AND HOMI- cide rates will fluctuate in coming years. No trend increases forever, and baby boomers will continue to commit less crime as they age. But the problem of youthful ghetto violence will persist. Despite a decline in the overall murder rate in recent years, many experts predict that it will soon rise again, both because there will be more teenagers and because more of those teenagers will be illegitimate.