Despite claims by police agencies of lower national crime rates, high murder rates still plague U.S. urban centers. In 2006, killings increased significantly in Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to name a few. Shooting deaths in cities like Oakland, Calif., and Newark, N.J., have left few residents untouched. Families have lost loved ones, many of whom simply were caught in the crossfire. Most community activists, politicians and the media are unable to explain the high murder rates in cities. Nor do they offer any way to resolve the problem. What’s behind the crime in urban areas? Criminologists, sociologists and think-tanks correctly cite poor educational opportunities, high unemployment rates, and the rotten criminal justice system as primary factors behind high violent crime rates. Some, like liberal Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, also incorrectly blame the growing “hip-hop culture” among Black youth as propelling crime. What all of these observers fail to identify is the real root cause of crime—the unequal, racist capitalist system.
Urban poverty causes crime
Oakland and Newark are indicative of the situation facing communities across the United States. They represent cities that had moderately stable economies from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Many workers held union jobs in the industrial sector that made life more tolerable for large portions of the working class. Since the deindustrialization trend that began in the 1970’s—when factories closed in search of gaining more profits in economically underdeveloped countries like Mexico and Indonesia—Oakland, Newark and other U.S. cities have seen their relative fortunes dwindle. Unemployment rates have risen drastically and social programs have been cut, making life harder for the urban working class.
These factors have contributed to the overall decline in living conditions for U.S. workers, especially Black workers. Unemployment for Black male high school graduates ranges anywhere from 13 to 50 percent in U.S. cities. For Black male high school dropouts, unemployment is a whopping 50 to 72 percent. The immiseration of workers caused by runaway factories and plant closings was not some unavoidable accident. Corporations consciously decided to export manufacturing jobs so they could further exploit workers in other countries, leading to greater profits for them but more poverty for U.S. workers.
Bourgeois politicians facilitated the exodus and mounted a coordinated attack on the social safety net enjoyed by millions of workers in this country. At the same time, they voted to expand prisons to house the swelling mass of unemployed workers. These trends, which are inherent to capitalism, have institutionalized poverty in Black and Latino communities. In the absence of job opportunities, some turned to crime to survive. Crime for many oppressed youth offers the only chance for a job with career advancement opportunities.
A worker can barely survive in a low-paying job at McDonald’s. That same person may come to the realization, however misguided, that he or she has the opportunity to thrive by selling drugs or participating in other illegal activities. Being able to purchase consumer items, possibly even high-priced luxury items, is an enticing prospect for young people in oppressed communities. Music, namely hip-hop, reflects the existing trends in these communities. Art mirrors reality. Some hip-hop artists resort to glorifying crime for their own material gain. Some hip-hop includes highly objectionable depictions of violence, misogyny and homophobia. But much of its content is progressive, anti-racist and even anti-capitalist. Hip-hop began as a reaction to national oppression and urban poverty in working-class communities. It is now an essential piece of urban culture. The main profiteers from hip-hop are the country’s large music conglomerates. They have been the driving force behind shaping commercial hip-hop based on what they think will sell.
Another perceived ill spawned by “hip-hop culture” is the popular phrase “Stop snitchin’.” It is meant to urge people against ratting out community members to the cops. “Stop snitchin’” arose several years ago in DVDs and on T-shirts in several East Coast cities. Black youth popularized the phrase across the United States. The T-shirts sold out fast in urban areas from New York City to Los Angeles.
“Stop snitchin’” was embraced not only by people who have committed crimes, but by those who understand the racist nature of the criminal “justice” system and the necessity to unite against it. Urging noncompliance with the cops in oppressed communities is a progressive act. It can build solidarity and a sense of common cause, especially if it is linked to an anti-racist or community-based struggle. Up until now, “Stop snitchin’” has been a simple expression of anger against the cops and the system. But its sentiments ring true for millions. To say that “hip-hop culture” is a primary cause of crime is false. Blaming a cultural phenomenon for crime ignores the real culprit. Street crime is a product of poverty and oppression.
Left out of this narrative is the biggest group of criminals of all—the capitalists. The corporate capitalists, who lay off workers, steal their pensions, and put them into poverty are not considered criminals. Their crimes are benignly labeled as “doing business.” Critics say that without hip-hop, police could solve more street crimes and put more people in jail, and things would get better for oppressed people. But as long as people are poverty-stricken and slum conditions remain, crime will happen. Putting more cops on the streets and throwing more people into prisons only amplify already existing social problems.
Liberal hand-wringing and moralizing about the ills of “hip-hop culture” will not stop crime or raise anyone out of the chains of poverty. Revolutionaries and progressives should reach out to oppressed youth and help organize a united fight to win a better society—one without racism, poverty and oppression.