News of violence, protests, national responses, radio silence, repeat. This has been our nation’s formula as we expose police violence against unarmed men of color. Here in Durham, neighborhoods are simultaneously over- and under-policed. Drug arrests soar, and violent crime increases. Attempts to combat racist policing with bias training, community forums and body cameras seem to fall short.
Recently, the City of Durham tried to take a closer look at the challenges faced by its police department by enlisting the diagnostic arm of the U.S. Department of Justice to review spikes in violent crime despite an overall decline in criminal activity.
The findings, released April 22, were unsurprising: Most victims of homicide and violent crime are black males ages 15 to 34. The concentration of this crime is in high-poverty, predominantly black neighborhoods where educational attainment levels are low. The DOJ report clearly makes a connection between poverty and crime, yet its recommendations hardly touch on this relationship.
The report acknowledges what it calls “barriers in the community” and recommends more parks, recreational facilities and community centers. But in the atmosphere of constrained municipal budgets and outright hostility by state lawmakers to increased spending on social welfare programs, such facilities are unlikely. Additionally, the nonprofit sector can’t be expected to bear the burden of failed public policy.
The final recommendation, the call to revitalize – which really means gentrify high-crime neighborhoods – is the most puzzling. Neighborhood revitalization, or geographically rearranging poverty and clearing the way for wealthy, mostly white people to move in, has historically not worked. We have seen this repeatedly in Durham – with the destruction of the Hayti community and the development of Few Gardens, then with the condemning of Few Gardens years later, and now with the development of Southside.
The DOJ report’s recommendations echo trends nationwide, but they only address symptoms of poverty. In New York, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and Durham, the common element is poverty and inequality. Until we begin to fight against poverty in Durham, we continue to expose ourselves to violence and racist policing.
The best way to reduce violence is to develop a robust anti-poverty program to address the problems of systematic and historical racism. Providing high-quality schooling that begins in early childhood would be a good start. Today, student performance in our state is among the lowest in the nation. And a recent Duke study shows the charter school system has been slowly re-segregating public schools.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell has launched a poverty reduction initiative targeting the worst census tracts in the city, but we need a more comprehensive and robust anti-poverty program. As an example, we can look to he North Carolina Fund, a systematic, multi-faceted approach toward fighting poverty conceived by former Gov. Terry Sanford in 1963. The fund took on experimental projects in education, health, job training, housing and community development. It laid the groundwork for programs like Head Start and VISTA. It provided funding for black communities to simultaneously pursue activist demands and receive required resources for gaining education and access to jobs.
Attaining quality education isn’t the only solution. Union membership nationwide is at 11 percent – the lowest in history – and in a right-to-work state like North Carolina, union rates are even more dismal. Access to good working conditions and a living wage are key elements of escaping poverty.
A successful anti-poverty program would also include reparative measures to account for generations of wage theft. An example of this could be providing “baby bonds” to children born into poverty. The bonds would be accessible when the child turned 18, and the money could be used toward education or job training.
Issues of race, poverty and education levels come to a crux at the criminal justice system. Histories of racist private and public policies compound, and we are left at a moment of crisis. Durham has taken an important step in reviewing the police department and crime. But until we address poverty, we will continue to confront extreme violence in our communities and leave our children vulnerable and ill-equipped for the future.
Robert Korstad is a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and in the Department of History. He is also co-chair of the Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality. Adrienne Harreveld is the program coordinator for the Network.