I recently read an incredible book by David Kennedy called Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and The End of Violence In Inner-City America. It is full of amazing insights into the perspectives of law enforcement and urban neighborhood communities, and how their misunderstandings of each other lead to actions that perpetuate those misunderstandings.
Kennedy outlined a paradigm that he claims is “common currency” in many poor, black neighborhoods. In this paradigm, he says, America is engaged in a conspiracy to subdue blacks. After the civil rights era, the CIA invented crack. The government keeps trucking it into the ghettos to draw young blacks into the trade so officers can keep arresting them.
When Kennedy first ran into this paradigm, he laughed it off as craziness. But he came to see reasons that made it an attractive theory to people with their experiences and knowledge: America really did overtly subject blacks by law until fairly recently; the crack epidemic devastated the ghetto; the community sees white folks drive in to buy drugs but only sees black kids getting arrested for it; they see a powerful American government with global military and surveillance capabilities, concluding that they must not be stopping the drug trade because they don’t want to stop it.
Once Kennedy understood the logic within this paradigm, he saw how law enforcement actions perpetuate it, and how it affects the community’s coldness toward police and the police’s coldness toward the community. By taking the paradigm seriously, he came up with ideas to address its fatal flaws, such as having law enforcement build up cases against dealer kids and tell them they could arrest them but they wouldn’t if they quit, which proved to the community the police wasn’t out to get them, which motivated them to help keep new dealers off the streets, which proved to the police the community really didn’t want the drugs either, which all in all literally turned dangerous neighborhoods into safe neighborhoods within weeks (!!!).
There’s a lot more fantastic insight and brilliant details about all of this in the book (seriously, read it), but I want to focus on this urban paradigm that America, particularly its government, is still systematically engaged in a racist agenda to subject the black man. I’ve stumbled onto parts of this idea before, but it’s still largely unfamiliar to me, Kennedy’s depiction is the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen. As an outsider, I can’t say if he’s being fair to the paradigm, and what sorts of variations exist and the various reasons people believe in various parts of it. But it seems safe to say that the paradigm exists, and is held by a non-negligible percentage of the American population.
I find it extremely interesting to compare this paradigm to one with which I am more familiar. Many conservatives also like to blame the government for perpetuating cycles of urban poverty, but for opposite reasons. The government is giving away too many handouts! Food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, “Obama phones”… the list goes on and on. The “takers” keep taking from the government so they can lay around with their TVs and video game consoles while demanding even more goodies paid for by hard-working taxpayers who are not nearly as lazy as the folks suffering from the disincentives of ugly marginal tax rates.
Before anybody jumps in with some Doubtlessly Qualified Opinions on the relative truth values of these paradigms, I just want to marvel at the tension.
In one corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to hurt them. In the other corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to help them!
Isn’t that kind of… beautiful, in a strangely partisan political way? Isn’t that such a great example of how people with different experiences can come to such different conclusions about the same issue?
Please don’t mistake me for implying some sort of parity between the paradigms. I strongly believe the urban conspiracy paradigm is fundamentally flawed. But the opposing paradigm does not even allow for that paradigm to exist, right? (Well, at least without assuming the complete irrationality of the participants. But I have long believed it too simple to write off people on “other sides” as evil/stupid; most people operate with biases but act rationally based on those biases, and Kennedy’s book confirms the rationality of the participants enough for me.) If the government really is helping poor people so much, how could the paradigm that the government is hurting them even get off the ground? What does the mere continuing existence of that paradigm say about the weaknesses of the other?
I have some preliminary ideas, slowly coagulating in bits and pieces – a comment about a Charles Murray book here, a reference to 90’s welfare reform there. I suspect the “ample social safety net” does not actually catch the “poor” nearly as efficiently as some conservatives (perhaps surprisingly) seem to imagine that it does. Maybe some services require addresses; many people who live in poverty are transient, moving between houses and apartments or nothing at all with different family members and friends as living situations change. Maybe some services require going to city buildings; many poor have limited transportation options. Maybe some services require waiting in long lines, verifying income status, social security cards, whatever; many working poor do not have a lot of spare time, maybe they do not know where their social security card is. Now soak all that in the general inefficiency and ineptitude of the incentives we call “government,” mix in some mistakes and lost paperwork and more long lines to fix them… hmm, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising if a lot of poor people don’t exactly see the government as a Clear and Shining Beacon of Everlasting Free Goodies (That Could Lift Them Out Of Poverty If Only They Weren’t So Lazy).
Of course, since I’ve never been poor, and I’ve picked up most of my conservative ideas of how the government helps the poor from conservative people who have never been poor, I don’t even know how to know how close I am to the right track of what government-poverty relations have ever looked like, much less how they look in 2014. I mean, I know there’s like forty million people on food stamps. That’s got to count for something, right? But there are huge gaps in understanding. I’m having my eyes opened to previously incomprehensible paradigms that are helping me fill them.