Drug trade in the inner city: trying to halt a cause of crime
``I'm afraid to ride the subway,'' says an indignant white New Yorker. ``You're constantly afraid that young blacks are going to get on and terrorize people - rob, beat them up, even shoot people. My car's been broken into twice, my wife's purse has been snatched four times. It's an ugly feeling. And we know it was blacks every time.'' ``Why should ordinary citizens be endangered just because blacks live in bad conditions?'' this commentator asks, warming to his subject. ``Sure, I'm sympathetic, but my sympathy has its limits. If drugs are the main problem, why can't responsible blacks keep drugs under control in their neighborhoods? White kids take drugs, too, but they don't go around mugging the way blacks do.''
Clearly, such remarks have an ugly, racist cast. But they also reflect real fears and legitimate concerns. Crime, drugs, and what should be done about them are inflammatory issues in America today.
Of dozens of blacks interviewed in four cities over a four-month period, nearly all cited drugs as the most devastating problem in low-income black communities. Almost all feel that law enforcement authorities are not doing enough to curb illegal drug traffic, and that by failing to sponsor enough treatment centers, civil authorities are not doing enough to rehabilitate drug users. Furthermore, many believe that blacks are inaccurately and unfairly assumed to be the principal engine of the drug trade in the US. In fact, they point out, it is not black criminals who import drugs into the country, nor is it blacks who reap most of the profits.
Many blacks - thoughtful, well-educated, conscientious citizens - believe that during the 1950s and '60s when the use of illegal drugs, chiefly heroin, was confined primarily to black ghettos, the ``drug problem'' was regarded as a black problem not worthy of the concern of white America. It is now perceived as a national problem demanding a solution, these observers contend, only because large numbers of whites now use illegal drugs. But drugs have been savaging black communities for decades, damaging lives, killing, and putting many behind bars.
``This dope problem hits blacks very hard,'' says a black community leader in Detroit. ``The implications are very serious, especially when you know it doesn't have to exist, that it could be stopped.''
Today, both blacks and whites are convinced that in neighborhoods with heavy drug traffic, more law enforcement - and less drug-related police corruption - are essential.
And blacks themselves have been mobilizing across the nation to combat drugs and crime in their own communities. Black leaders have been speaking out with increasing vehemence against drugs. Grass-roots efforts to ``deglamorize'' drugs have sprung up in many inner cities. Spokesmen such as athletes and police officers are talking to inner-city schoolchildren about the harmful effects of narcotics, and activists are mounting campaigns that urge youngsters to ``Say no to drugs.''
A network of antidrug and anticrime programs has grown up in black communities, enabling individual citizens to be come actively involved in the fight against drug abuse and crime. Most of these organizations, such as the House of Umoja in Philadelphia, Concerned Citizens on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Washington, and Black on Black Crime Prevention in Tallahassee, Fla., are supported largely by private contributions and church donations.
The Chicago Fellowship of Friends, for example, offers positive alternatives to drugs and crime to some 200 young blacks living in Chicago's infamous public housing development, Cabrini-Green.
The Midtown Youth Academy in Washington serves the children of drug abusers in the inner city. The program seeks to break the cycle of drug abuse by providing children who live with drug addicts with an alternative to the drug-ridden environment of their homes.
Programs like these are designed to foster the active rejection of drugs on the part of young people which black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson have been calling for.
Testifying at a congressional hearing on drug abuse last May, he said, ``The extent of drug use in America is a national disaster.... Our young people must reject drugs and alcohol with their minds and their values. Anything short of that will fail.''
Mr. Jackson urged the nation to ``provide its children with a moral framework that rejects drugs, and the tools ... to build a society they will not want to use drugs to escape from.''
While such efforts have already been seen to provide at least temporary alternatives to drug abuse, many observers believe that a definitive solution to the drug problem in inner cities must be aimed at its underlying causes. They insist that at the root of the epidemic of crime and drugs are the very conditions of life in inner-city ghettos - unemployment, single teen-age parenthood, inadequate education, and poverty - which breed crime and create a market for drugs.
They say that drug use has proliferated in ghetto communities essentially because drugs provide what is not otherwise available there: large amounts of money when the drugs are sold and, for a little while at least, a sense of escape, excitement, and self-assurance when they are used. Many experts believe that until the economic, social, and political ills of black communities are resolved, other efforts to control drugs and crime in these communities will be largely ineffective.
Rachar Bilal, a former addict who is now a counselor at a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, told this reporter: ``The difference between you and the addict is that you like who you are. You don't have no major problems that's such a big threat to you that you want to escape from them by any means possible. Whereas addicts don't like who they are and they want to get away from the feeling. They use, so they won't feel.''
Lawyer Adam Walinsky, long an outspoken analyst of urban crime and law enforcement policy, feels that a dislocation from mainstream American life is responsible for most crime and drug addiction in American ghettos. Mr. Walinsky is former chairman of the New York State Commission of Investigation and was legislative assistant to US Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the 1960s.
``We have large numbers of young men who have been brought up without any kind of connection to our society or to our notions of morality,'' says Walinsky, ``who lack a sense of purpose or of a future, other than the opportunity to make money through various illegal activities. And drug dealing is by far the most lucrative illegal activity available to them.''
The population Walinsky is describing is widely known today as the urban ``underclass.'' He points out that these are, for the most part, second- and third-generation descendants of Southern sharecroppers who migrated to Northern cities during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
``Traditionally, these people have not been expected to have the same drive for education and rising in the world as other Americans have,'' he says. ``They were expected to be `the hewers of wood and the drawers of water.' And schools and other institutions tended to push them in that direction. As a result, they have often been less well equipped than most to make the transition to an urban economy or an urban society. And historically they have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination in most aspects of life.''
Many observers believe that another facet of the isolation of inner-city ghettos is the sometimes inadequate law enforcement that has contributed to runaway drug traffic. On the other hand, many blacks (and whites as well) also feel that law enforcement in black communities is often heavy handed and discriminatory.
Up to a point, Walinsky agrees. ``Police action is often heavy handed,'' he says. He maintains that in recent decades, however, there has been a considerable effort by law enforcement agencies to treat blacks fairly.
A recent study by the Crime Control Institute reveals a drop in police killings, particularly of blacks. While in 1970 there were 7 blacks for every white person killed by police, by 1979 the ratio had fallen to 2.8 to 1.
Many police officers insist that ``revolving door'' justice greatly reduces enforcement effectiveness by allowing drug dealers to return to the streets soon after arrest. The police blame the courts for passing light sentences, and the courts blame overcrowding in the prisons.
``There is a `revolving door' when it comes to drug enforcement,'' Walinsky agrees. ``Where are they going to put them all? In New York State we have twice as many people in jail as we did 15 years ago. Is New York a safer place? Arrests don't make much difference. If you grab some kid who's selling crack on the corner, you're just making an opening for his competitor.''
Where does the solution lie? Walinsky calls for efforts to ``cut down on the frightening wave of single teen-age parenting,'' which, he says, breeds community disorganization and crime-prone youth. He stresses the urgent need to improve the quality of education in ghetto schools and to reverse the soaring dropout rates.
And he takes politicians, law enforcers, and the news media to task for using drugs as a scapegoat for the social, political, and economic causes of desperate inner-city conditions. He insists that politicians - white and black - must not be allowed to blame all the inner city's woes on drugs, when they are clearly not doing all they can to correct the devastating conditions and solve the problems that feed drug abuse.
And Walinsky is concerned with the sense of separateness and alienation among inner-city youth. ``We've got to help these people feel that they're connected to the rest of us,'' he says, ``that they're part of the United States, that they have some stake in this country. Locking up the kids who sell drugs is not the answer. Does anybody really care about these kids?'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: Of the 10,239,478 people arrested nationwide in 1985, 2,721,144, or 26% of them, were black.1 SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of the 17,545 homicide victims in the US in 1985, 7,294, or 41.6%, were black.1 SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation. The highest single cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 24 is homicide.2 SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation