The horrifying triple murder of three college-bound teenagers in Newark provides a startling illustration of the grim realities faced by urban youth nationwide, according to a recent U.S. Justice Department report.
In an analysis of violent crime rates from 2001 to 2005 released earlier this month, the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that blacks made up a disproportionate percentage of homicide victims – 49 percent – despite accounting for only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Of Black victims, at least more than half were in their late teens or their 20s (51 percent), male (85 percent), from urban areas of at least 250,000 population (53 percent) or killed by firearms (77 percent). It is the mixture of illegal drugs, easy access to handguns, and young men feeling locked out of economic opportunity that explains these recent tragedies and statistics.
The three Newark victims – all headed for Delaware State University in the fall – appeared to be on a direct track for success – rising stars whose lights were extinguished much too soon in a schoolyard in urban America. The tragedy combined with similar ones around the country – including Philadelphia and Baltimore – has sounded alarms not only among the affected urban areas but also the nation's police chiefs.
As The New York Times' Bob Herbert reported in a recent column, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton has warned of a "gathering storm" of violence that threatens to spiral out of control if the issue isn't put back on the nation's radar the way it was in the 1990s.
The situation is not quite, as Herbert explains, at the "same degree as the crack-propelled violence" of the late 1980s and early 1990s that drew major federal support through community policing and other crime-reduction initiatives but is "in frightening numbers, nevertheless."
Much of the federal commitment to the war on crime has shifted to the war on terror following the World Trade Center tragedy in 2001. Since then, the rate of victimization of Black men of all ages by violent crime has seen a modest 5.3 percent rise, undermining some of the progress made in the late 1990s as a result of increased federal attention and a flourishing national economy, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
From 1993 to 2000, it fell 60 percent. But, among Black males in their early 20s, it actually increased by one-third to 51.4 victims per 1,000 Blacks, after a nearly 70 percent decline from 1993, a year that still posted a rate more than twice 2005's.
"We have to get the feds back into this game," Chief Bratton observed to New York Times' Herbert. "They have the resources. They can help us."
Public outcry over the Newark slayings has prompted Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey state legislators to propose bold reforms on gun control. It has also motivated officials to eye tougher immigration measures in light of revelations that the ringleader of the group of six men held in the brutal murders was a wanted man in the country illegally. We must realize the trend toward higher violent crime rates will not be reversed by law enforcement alone.
It requires a holistic approach that invests as much into the enhancement of economic and educational opportunities for minority youth in urban America as into crime-reduction efforts. As we concluded in our 2007 State of Black America report, that should include improvements in public education of urban youth, revival of the federal summer jobs program and creation of more second-chance opportunities, among other initiatives, to lift the sense of hopelessness that threatens to permeate our inner cities and to drive the perpetuation of violence.
The greatest mistake our nation could make is to allow the scourge of violence that plagued urban America in the late 1980s and 1990s to make a comeback. That's the last thing we need.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.