Oakland's Crime Problem is Part of a Disturbing Urban Trend

Crime in Oakland is hardly news these days. The New York Times recently ran a front page story outlining the tragic pathology. Last year's murder total already has been surpassed and the overall record is within reach. To put Oakland's current murder total into perspective, it is running reasonably ahead of New Orleans, and we don't have a Katrina to blame.

This is particularly troubling because the preponderance of violent crime is concentrated primarily in two areas within East and West Oakland. Moreover, the majority of the perpetrators, as well as the victims, are African American.

What would be news is someone proposing a solution that went beyond the short-term decorative window dressing fueled more by politics than results. That, unfortunately, may be more difficult than the insurmountable task suggests.

There is no urban Shangri-la. The murder rate may vary from city to city, but the trend is similar. New York is experiencing its problems, as is Atlanta, Los Angeles and Houston. Oakland's neighbor across the Bay also is seeing an uncomfortable rise in violence. San Francisco recently experienced five homicides in one day.

We are well past the point of simply labeling this epidemic as the nasty residue of racism. I fear what we are currently witnessing represents more of a trend than an aberration. This is a complex problem that has been years in the making.

President Clinton and the Congress bear some responsibility with their infamous welfare reform. According to the census data, child poverty has increased since that legislation was enacted.

Twenty-five percent of African Americans live at or the below the poverty line, which is an improvement since 1990. But if one factors the increasing divide between rich and poor, it makes those who live in poverty even poorer and, I suspect, more desperate. According to the Economic Policy Institute, income in 2005 improved for the first time during the current recovery, but poverty remains unchanged and income inequality rose last year.

The "prison industrial complex" also has played a major role. Our obsession with locking up nonviolent offenders has allowed elected officials to hype their tough on crime bona fides while merely adding to the severe prison overcrowding. Once released, many of these nonviolent offenders become meaner, a less caring version of what went in.

In addition, the National Rifle Association, living under the perceived paranoia of losing its weapons, hides behind the Second Amendment to effectively lobby so that gun availability is nearly as easy as buying a Coke. Not long ago, Oakland police arrested a 14-year-old for carjacking who had in his possession at the time of his arrest a sawed-off shotgun along with a 9 mm assault weapon.

And we can't get around the influence of parental neglect as a contributing factor. Personally, I don't buy the notion that kids primarily sell drugs to feed their families. Some do, but they are the minority.

Under these conditions, what kind of society should we really expect to have? We must stop kidding ourselves that there is somehow a solution lurking in the midst that will eradicate this dilemma overnight.

We have an urban predicament that rivals the Iraq situation in that there are no good choices. Whatever paths are pursued, it must be done under the realistic dark cloud of social triage -- we must prioritize where we can have the most impact.

If we are serious, it will require a protracted process that may take decades to bear sustainable fruit. Assuming that we courageously take on the various contributing factors, there is still little that can be done about parental neglect.

We cannot continue to allow quality jobs to go overseas, believing that low-paying employers such as Wal-Mart will pick up the slack. Low-income folk have the same consumer desires as the wealthy.

Furthermore, we cannot allow the proliferation of guns to continue while alleging that we are tough on crime. There are plenty of studies indicating a corresponding relationship between easy access to guns and violent crime.

Innocent families continue to live in fear, waiting for the public will for systemic change to catch up with their reality, while politicians offer simplistic, reactionary proposals that will do nothing other than perhaps garner a little attention in the next news cycle.