As I mentioned earlier this week, we on the right are often flummoxed when poor and minority communities react to issues in a way which seems inimical to their self interest. Here in Milwaukee, while most of the city is safe, there are neighborhoods that have begun to resemble the O.K. Corral. Yet there is little urgency about that. The black community has, during the past year, mobilized over the acquittal of off-duty police officers accused of beating a man of mixed racial heritage at a drunken party, a proposal to restrain out of control students with plastic handcuffs, and the attempted recall of a race-baiting alderman who has publicly called on the citizens of neighborhoods that are popularly known by names such as Little Beirut, to "stop snitching." It seems to have remained largely quiescent in the face of increasingly brazen violence. People are concerned, but there is not the same energy.
In last month's Atlantic (subscription required), experts commenting on the spread of a "stop snitching" ethic acknowledged the impact of good old fashioned intimidation, but also cited the oppositional paradigm (my term, not theirs) that informs a great deal of popular black sentiment. Many young African-American males wind up in the criminal justice system, underscoring the notion that the police are "them" and not "us." They noted the widespread acceptance of racialized myths such as the notion that crack is a government conspiracy that fit within this paradigm.
Returning to Milwaukee, we saw this in the community's reaction to the handcuff proposal. Opposition was based on concerns over the symbolism of handcuffs in school. They were said to be a device to prepare young blacks to be handcuffed in real life or to be reminiscent of slavery. Former UWM professor Walter Farrell, commenting on WMCS, suggested that handcuffed students would be seen in the community as "punked" because they had allowed themselves to be cuffed by someone who was not a cop. Farrell, and school board president Peter Blewitt on the same station, worried about discipline being rooted in cultural differences as if lashing out at others and throwing objects is a "black thing." (I'm guessing its not.)
This is undoubtedly rooted in a concern over further stigmatization of MPS students, a distrust of authority and, frankly, in a certain amount of embarrassment.
All of this is understandable, but it remains problematic in that is severed from an undeniable reality. Every person that I have spoken to within MPS acknowledges that kids who cannot be restrained are a huge problem. Perhaps flexicuffs aren't the answer, but neither is sensitivity or even Farrell's call for flying squads of shrinks who would supposedly do what a child's parents have not.
Similarly, I can understand why poor black people are distrustful of police. But a resolve to stop snitching is akin to handing over the hen house to the fox for fear of the rooster.
Conservatives are right to criticize this oppositional paradigm and are joined by a growing number of black commentators - conservative and otherwise - who will probably be more effective than white conservatives.
But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the paradigm is widely shared and examine our own complicity in its continuing power. The Jude beating was a double tragedy. Not only was Frank Jude abused, but a community that needs the police was rendered even more distrustful of them. It is incumbent upon all of us to see allegations of police misconduct as a matter to be investigated and not a political litmus test.
We need to reexamine, as many conservatives have begun to do, sentencing practices in drug crimes. In forging ties to African-American pastors who are fighting a lonely battle against family breakdown and the erosion of civility, we must not only share and support their promotion of traditional morality, but listen to their concerns regarding the need for expanded economic opportunity. Our proposals to address the latter certainly need not resemble traditional welfare, but we may need to accept that they will cost money.