THEY are afraid to say so in public, but many of the North’s big-city mayors groan in private that their biggest and most worrisome problem is the crime rate among Negroes.
In 1,551 U.S. cities, according to the FBI tally for 1956, Negroes, making up 10% of the U.S. population, accounted for about 30% of all arrests, and 60% of the arrests for crimes involving violence or threat of bodily harm—murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. In one city after another, the figures—where they are not hidden or suppressed by politicians—reveal a shocking pattern. Items:
New York (14% Negro). Of the prisoners confined in houses of detention last year to await court disposition of their cases, 44% of the males and 65% of the females were Negroes.
Chicago (15% Negro). In 1956 twice as many Negroes as whites—1,366 to 679—were arrested on charges of murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape and robbery.
Detroit (25% Negro). Two out of three prisoners held in the Wayne County jail are Negroes. Last month 62% of. the defendants presented for trial in Recorder’s Court were Negroes. Of last year’s 25,216 arrests resulting in prosecution, excluding traffic cases, Negroes accounted for 12,919.
Los Angeles (13% Negro). In 1956 Negroes accounted for 28% of all arrests, and 48% of the arrests for homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft.
San Francisco (7% Negro). The victims in 896 of last year’s 1,564 recorded robbery cases reported that the assailants were Negroes.
Negro leaders sometimes argue passionately that arrest statistics wildly distort the comparative incidence of crime among Negroes and whites because cops are more likely to arrest Negroes for petty crimes or on mere suspicion. Protests Executive Editor Charles Wartman of Detroit’s Michigan Chronicle, a Negro weekly: “The number of Negroes booked is at least partially indicative of subconscious if not conscious racial persecution on the part of police officers.”
But inequality of treatment by the police may actually tend to shrink rather than inflate the statistics of Negro crime. Says Newsman Wartman in the next breath: “When Negroes violate social morals—sex, drinking, gambling—white cops bypass this as ‘typically Negro.’ ” Many Negro leaders protest that the police are far from diligent enough in dealing with crimes committed against Negroes—and Negroes are the victims in the great majority of Negro crimes of violence. Since Negroes, even when they are victims or innocent bystanders, are often wary of calling the police, many offenses of disorder and assault go unreported when committed by Negroes in the depths of a ghetto.
Whether the statistics of Negro crime overstate or understate the reality, they are shrouded from public attention by what a Chicago judge last week called a “conspiracy of concealment.” In many cities, Negro leaders and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People put pressure on politicians, city officials and newspapers to play down the subject. Fearing loss of Negro votes, few elected officials dare to resist the pressures.
Abetting the concealment campaign is the feeling shared by many whites that it is unfair, inflammatory and even un-American to talk about Negro crime. This feeling is reflected in the widespread newspaper practice of not mentioning a criminal’s race unless he is at large and the fact would help in identifying him.
In hiding the facts about Negro crime, the “conspiracy of concealment” helps blur the causes of it. Negro leaders themselves often put forward explanations that are oversimple. Some hold that Negro crime is largely the result of migrations from the South: in the unfamiliar environment of the North, the argument runs, Negroes tend to be more crime-prone, just like white immigrants from abroad. But in fact, some studies have shown that, contrary to popular conviction, crime rates among foreign-born whites were lower than among U.S.-born whites.
Most often, Negro leaders point to poverty as the No. 1 factor in Negro crime. As Editor Louis Martin of the Chicago Defender sees it, the main cause is poor and crowded housing. But the moderate crime rates among European immigrants, subject to similar stresses of poverty and bad housing, suggest that other factors may be more important.
Providing better housing for impoverished Negroes is a necessity, but it would not solve the problem of Negro crime. Crime rates run high in the Negro slums of Harlem and South Side Chicago, but they also run high in the Negro districts of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the houses are comparatively decent. As many a public-housing official has learned to his dismay, better housing does not automatically bring about the improvement in character and conduct that do-gooders used to predict. Slum dwellers who move into brand-new public-housing projects often turn them into new slums as verminous and crime-ridden as the tenements they left behind.
Negro leadership could make a start toward lowering Negro crime rates by abandoning the conspiracy of concealment and urging full disclosure of the facts to be met. Once they faced the facts, Negro leaders and organizations—including the N.A.A.C.P.—could help by wholeheartedly undertaking short-term efforts of rehabilitation, by accepting responsibility in an area where they habitually look the other way.
But even heroic efforts by Negro leadership could only dent the Negro crime problem, because essentially it is a white problem. And it will remain a severe problem until Northern whites, private citizens as well as civic officials, recognize that Negro crime is basically a symptom of a failure in integration, and start attacking discrimination in the North with the same fervor they show in arguing for civil rights in the South.
Unlike the Caucasian immigrant of an earlier day, a Negro can scarcely ever hope, even in the North, that the white society will really accept him on his human merits. Negroes are more prone than whites to break the laws, rules and customs of society because they are excluded from full membership in it. In gross and subtle ways, from unwritten bans on employing Negroes to the faintly patronizing tone that even liberal-hearted whites take toward them, Negroes are made to feel alien and inferior. This pervasive discrimination holds down capable Negroes at the top of the social ladder, dims their voices among their own people, builds up tensions and resentments inside the Negro society, and keeps great masses of Negroes segregated in ghettos where the standards of personal morality, discipline and responsibility are lower than those in the white world outside.
“Slam enough doors in a man’s face, and he may break one of them down,” said San Francisco’s Negro Deputy City Attorney R. J. Reynolds last week. The way to reduce the percentage of Negro crime, he believes, is to stop slamming the doors, or at least, as a start, give the Negro a new hope that maybe the next door won’t be slammed. Spreading the message of that new hope, he says, is a responsibility that Negro leaders will be very glad to assume.