Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Restoring “Collective Efficacy” within Poor Neighborhoods

The extraordinary violence or at least the constant threat of it that plagues impoverished neighborhoods is perpetuated by a tiny minority .

It is nothing new.

It was first documented by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in the mid-1890s while doing a survey of poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia as a post doctorate fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

This was more than a decade before he would help found the NAACP and in 1899, his findings were published as a book by Penn entitled, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.

Born at the end of the Civil War, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was perplexed by the enduring aftereffects of slavery which were deepened by the defacto racial segregation that replaced the “Black Codes” put in place as he was born.

Known as Jim Crow laws, they had even been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court during the time of his observations of black on black violence in neighborhoods that were segregated by both race and poverty.

In part, for contrast, Du Bois also went on to analyze enclaves of middle class and affluent blacks as he did in 1912 in Durham, North Carolina where I live, pointing to the influence of a more “tolerant and helpful community” even then one of the Bull City’s overarching traits.

It was the 50th anniversary of emancipation but Durham then, as it is now in so many other ways, was an outlier. Within months, the Ku Klux Klan was resurrected in Georgia and rapidly spread across the nation.

It has now been six decades since segregation was declared unconstitutional and nearly that long since he passed away at age 95 but the problems Du Bois first traced to slavery and then racial segregation still inhabit areas of deep poverty.

A new book I mentioned last week entitled, Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, is a series of sociological overviews longitudinally weaving together hundreds of studies such as Du Bois’s.

It is edited, as well as mostly written by Dr. Orlando Patterson, another black sociologist with roots at Harvard.

Patterson notes that the black homicide rate documented by Du Bois in the mid-1890s was “more than five times that of the white population.”

In the late 1980s, social historian, researcher and Haverford College professor Dr. Roger Lane took these metrics back to 1860 and then forward to the 1980s making the connection to what he referenced as a “cultural of violence long nurtured by exclusion and denial.”

By the 1960s, according to Patterson, the black homicide rate had grown to be “11.46 times that of the white rate.”  This discrepancy “peaked at 39.4 times in 1991 and has stabilized today at still about “seven times that of whites.”

Today the discrepancy among teens is more “eight times.”

The homicide offending rate today is also higher among black teenagers, “eight times the white teen rate of murders,” giving rise to awareness of black on black crimes.

While significant, Patterson does not see poverty alone as the cause although it is poor neighborhoods where both victimization and offending is highest, perpetrated by a razor thin proportion of people there.

While racism and stereotyping among police may play a role, the findings in Cultural Matrix suggest to me that a far greater possibility is that both the officers involved and the victims in these neighborhoods may have been experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)

Patterson explains that “By a socially and culturally toxic environment we mean three things: the pervasive culture of violence and threat of physical danger already existing in a community of upbringing; weak neighborhood efficacy; and institutional neglect and incarceration.”

He explains neighborhood efficacy by citing studies defining “collective efficacy” such as “social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good.”

It can be more effective at instilling social controls than formal mechanisms such as police and courts, something the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, another social historian often pointed out.

According to Patterson, “Growing up in the presence of pervasive violence tends to make one violent…Black children in the inner cities perceive their world as a violent, threatening place….”

Studies show that “environmental trauma” leads to “fear conditioning” which leads to “anxiety disorders,” and “chronic anxiety” that can disrupt “the developing architecture of the brain.”

Our brains are wired to profile but if profiling is useful at all as a tool to solve this conundrum, it would not involve race or socio-economics at all.  It would go something like this:

Look for animal abuse to find abusers of children and domestic partners.  That will also be a predictor of violent offenders in the neighborhood.

For anyone truly concerned about social justice, this would also be a far more effective way to get involved.

Other “eyes and ears” should include solid waste collectors, water meter readers, cable and utility installers as well as animal control officers and of course, neighbors.

Earlier this month, Brookings published “10 facts about child well-being and health in America.”

One is that “In 2013, nearly 680,000 children were reported to states to be the victims of abuse or neglect” and “1,520 died from maltreatment…80% at the hands of their own parents.

Another is that “An estimated 13 percent of all U.S. children and 21 percent of black children will experience confirmed maltreatment at some time between birth and adulthood.”

Police need to be accountable but it is clear, according to Patterson’s book of studies, that so do parents and neighborhoods.

Poor neighborhoods must seem capable of being a war zone at time but it is crucial to remember that the vast majority living there are “friendlies.”

This even includes the vast majority of the between one and two-in-10 who are totally disconnected from society.

Repeat after me:

Look for animal abuse to find abusers of children and domestic partners.  That will also be a predictor of violent offenders in the neighborhood.

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