Politics & Policy

Remember When It Was Dangerous to Walk Outside at Night? Ask the Black Leaders Who Called for a Crime Crackdown

(Photo Illustration: NRO; Image: Getty)

I’m old enough to remember what it was like. I remember when more than 2,000 young men (disproportionately black) died in the streets of New York City, every single year. I remember when trips outside, late at night, in cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles were deemed — justifiably — to be inherently dangerous, where there would be that small knot of concern in your stomach when the streets grew dark and deserted. I remember the panicked voice of my “little brother” — the young kid I was mentoring in East Nashville — when I was hanging out at his place too late. “You need to leave,” he’d plead. “It’s not safe for you at night.”

Those were terrible days in the United States of America, days when young men killed one another at terrifying rates, when we believed that our social fabric was irrevocably fraying and our great cities were dying. Every community suffered, but the black community suffered most of all. Indeed, law-abiding African Americas (the vast majority of the community) were then in the middle of a 40-year campaign to save their own lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. Black community leaders and black politicians called for tougher sentencing and a greater police presence. The Congressional Black Caucus took the lead on combating crack cocaine, and black leaders partnered with the Clinton administration to crack down on crime. They did so proudly, and they often did so bravely.

Tougher sentencing, more creative policing techniques, more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, and massive public-education efforts all converged to save our cities.

And since I’m old enough to remember the crime waves at their worst, I can also remember when the wave broke. When life suddenly — wondrously — started to get better. I lived in Manhattan early in Rudy Giuliani’s first term, when the headlines proclaimed dramatic decreases in crime and when friends and neighbors talked about how the city was coming alive again and that they felt hope for New York. The phrase “broken-windows policing” entered the vernacular — as cops began to see preventing crime, not solving crimes, as their primary task — and people talked about computer-targeted neighborhood patrols. Home values began to soar, Times Square transformed itself into virtual Disney World North, and we walked everywhere — late at night and sometimes all night — enjoying the world’s greatest city.

RELATED: The Truth About Mass Incarceration

I’m suspicious of anyone who says they can pinpoint the exact reason that the crime wave broke. Crime has complex cultural roots, and it has complex cultural solutions. But one thing is clear: America was throwing the kitchen sink at the crime problem. Tougher sentencing, more creative policing techniques, more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, and massive public-education efforts all converged to save our cities. Black pastors threw themselves into the breach, using their prophetic voice to call young people to a higher, better life. Countless educators and mentors gave their time and money to give at-risk youth a fighting chance. At the same time, America was entering a post–Cold War economic boom. We can argue endlessly about which factor was most important, about how precisely they worked together to save tens of thousands of lives and spare hundreds of thousands from the pain and terror of criminal violence. But we cannot argue about the fact that life is better, life is safer, and Americans pulled together to help re-knit our social fabric.

#share#I couldn’t help but remember these bad days — and the new dawn — when reading Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s latest magnum opus in The Atlantic: a 17,000-word essay on the impact of mass incarceration on the black community. Coates being Coates, he sees our current policy of mass incarceration as thoroughly consistent with America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow; in other words, the overarching goal and result of mass incarceration is the control and marginalization of black Americans. He shuns even great figures in black history who decry the problem of criminal behavior. He rejects messages that emphasize personal responsibility, pays short shrift to those black voices who cried out for safety and justice in their own communities, and instead focuses on the criminal as pure victim. With his characteristic eloquence, Coates writes about what it’s like to be imprisoned, shut away from friends and family.

RELATED: ’Broken-Windows’ Policing Does Work. Says Who? Residents of Poor Black Neighborhoods

Coates is honest enough to note that mass incarceration is a bipartisan phenomenon. Indeed, it’s hard to find contemporary politicians as tough on crime as Democrat Bill Clinton or Democrat Mario Cuomo. But to Coates, this bipartisan commitment to saving lives and rescuing communities from fear is simply more evidence that racism is an American issue, not just a Republican problem. Those familiar with Coates’s writing know that he casts America as the real criminal here, the villain at the center of the story. White supremacy is the core American idea, plunder is the core American activity, and oppression is the natural and eternal consequence.

Contemporary mass incarceration is a response to an undeniable crisis of violence, a crisis that we would be fools to forget. 

Yet, while giving voice to those black Americans behind bars, Coates gives little space to other black voices. We don’t hear from the murder victim’s family — about what it’s like to bury a child, to feel their absence every single day. We don’t hear from the victim of the carjacking, the person who may suffer from PTSD and never feel safe in her own city again. Crime often breaks two homes — the victim’s and the perpetrator’s — and it is simply wrong to focus on the guilty at the expense of the innocent.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about mass incarceration. Like many millions of Americans, Left and Right, I’m hopeful that we can hold on to our gains in public safety and maintain our revitalized cities while imprisoning fewer Americans. We should explore ways in which improved technology can help us monitor criminals and hold them accountable for their actions while still allowing them to be productive and present in their families’ lives. We need to explore alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, with the full awareness that prison is often the place where a one-time offender learns to be a career criminal.

#related#But we must explore prison reform the same way we should explore police reform — humbly, with full awareness of the risks, and without undue optimism about human nature. Previous experiments in lenience have often ended in bloodshed, and we should watch carefully each state and local situation as they test alternatives to incarceration or controlled early releases. As Coates properly notes, we can’t simply end mass incarceration by dealing only with “nonviolent” offenders. The ranks of the violent are too vast, and the lines between violent and nonviolent offenses are too blurred. In short: Proceed with caution.

Contemporary mass incarceration is not the result of a spasm of national racism. Rather, it’s a response to an undeniable crisis of violence, a crisis that we would be fools to forget. And if today we privilege those black voices who condemn contemporary public policies and denigrate messages of personal responsibility, we will be marginalizing those contrary, powerful black voices who helped save their own communities (and our nation) from a crime wave that was bringing our society to its knees. American elites are uniting to condemn mass incarceration, but the elites won’t be the ones who bear the burden of failed reforms. All lives matter, and when remembering the plight of the prisoner and his family, we cannot forget his victim, for his is the greater loss.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.