Economic Roots of Violence

When it comes to why we're beginning to see some of the unrest that led up to the presidential election of 1968, including the racial violence we're now suffering today, it's impossible to point to a single cause. But I'd like to suggest a major one.

Overall, the level of violent crime has been dropping steadily in the U.S. for many years, but when killings happen now, they often seem more charged with hatred and fear than in the past--especially when they appear to involve prejudice toward one identity group or another. Gays, African-Americans, police have all been targets in recent killings--the horrors we've witnessed in Orlando, Minnesota, and Dallas seem charged with the sort of bias that our society in many ways has outgrown since the 60s. Behind that bias is a certain kind of despair. A pervasive sense of hopelessness--powerlessness--underlies these eruptions of gunfire. I believe you can find a major source of that despair in the decline in economic opportunity we've been suffering for decades.

The tension between urban African-Americans and the police can be traced partly to the way crime has become an economic necessity for many urban families. Throughout the past four decades, most of the gains in employment opportunities for minorities in the 60s and early 70s were lost as manufacturing moved jobs offshore as our businesses reduced jobs through new efficiencies and technology. As it becomes harder to make a living legitimately, some minorities seek quicker income through crime, particularly the drug trade. With this comes a higher incidence of gun violence--along with the much-touted statistics on how most blacks die at the hands of other blacks. These are, in large part, essentially, workplace deaths--the violence is an integral part of sustaining the drug enterprise.

Into this stew of gang conflict, police arrive to protect the innocent and try to contain the crime. Yet in their efforts, they meet with fear, anger and resentment--which is quickly reciprocated by the police. The tension between a police force devoted to upholding the law and those who need to violate it in order to make a living has, in my view, created much of the widespread fear and anger that inspires the sort of murders we've witnessed recently in the killings of both police and African-Americans.

The origins of all this horror are ultimately economic. President Obama made this point last year in a press conference:

. . . We . . . have impoverished communities that have been stripped of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty; . . . ; communities where there's no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks . . . .if we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem.

It's sad to also have to admit that bigotry is on the rise. We see unparalleled rudeness and vitriol hurled at a black President totally divorced from legitimate policy disagreements. We see black men harassed and arrested for small crimes, in situations where whites would walk away free. Recent studies suggest that white killings against African Americans may not be greater than that of whites, yet persecution and incarceration clearly is.

Economic inequality means loss of opportunity. Schools for African Americans tend to be abysmal in quality, and located in zip codes other than the suburbs. Kids from these districts drop out of high school more often, generally come from single-parent homes, and lack male role models that would lead them away from crime.

The problems are complex, but these are our families, our people, our communities and our nation. We can start to address this crisis with a living wage and a better educational system. We need intervention now. Even more vitally important, we need a new paradigm for business, a new way of looking at the mission of private enterprise--with the welfare of all stakeholders in mind, not just shareholders, but employees, customers, communities and the nation as a whole. Our business sector must find ways to raise wages and invest in our communities, building new ventures to spur job growth, especially in our cities. Some of our brightest CEOs are already thinking and acting in these terms.

Business and government can and must do more. Our police must do more, but they can't fix the problem alone. Only we, all of us acting as one, can. We the people of caring and compassion must reach out as neighbors, friends, business people and human beings. We'd better start soon.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.