Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Few Notes On "The City" & Its Moral Problems

Winter has arrived and the northeastern US has entered its annual deep freeze. This is usually the time when I go into hibernation. I've never really been fond of the cold, but I've learned to appreciate winter more over the years. I noticed that I haven't written about "the city" or anything particularly urban lately. It seems most of my posts these days have been targeting the larger issues strictly regarding atheism and philosophy. But rest assured, issues regarding urban life still concern me.

When it comes to urban issues concerning New York I have always paid attention to the crime rate, and in particular, the homicide rate. In 2011, the last year which I have statistics available, New York City had  515 homicides and non-negligible manslaughters. This is more or less in the same range as the city experienced in the past 10 years. I have heard other cities like Detroit are experiencing record high murder rates that they haven't seen in 20 years. This is very disturbing. We've been hearing that violent crime in the US overall is on the decline, yet it appears there are pockets of the country bucking that trend.

The reality of the rise in violent crime largely has to do with areas of the country where the economy has struggled to recover from the economic downturn, and where the economy has been troubled for decades. Detroit in the US is synonymous with exactly what went wrong after WW2. The city's manufacturing based declined and it was never able to recover or successfully diversify its economy. Race riots made almost the entire white population to flee the suburbs, and the US by and large simply just let Detroit rot.

Many years ago I wrote about the hip hop culture's moral problems and I still stand by them today. I understand that for many urban black and Latino folks, times are hard and have been for years. But the crime problem we see is a case where they are largely cutting off their nose despite their face. Things are made worse when a culture gives up, and embraces and nurtures apathy as if it were a virtue. When the formal economy withered away, the drug economy came in to replace it. The very nature of the drug economy means that for some involved in it, it will lead to many incidents of violence. But is this true for all?

Well I can say that I have used illegal drugs many times in my life. I never once got arrested for it, even when I sold it. I have had drug dealers who were reasonably responsible people who were not the kind to get into violent episodes. Why is it that many people can use and even sell drugs without becoming violent? Why is it that others cannot separate violence from drugs?

As a moral thinker I do care about the clear moral implications concerning our violent culture. I don't think we can entirely blame the drug culture, although it is one of many components. Our declining manufacturing base, failed public schools and failed parenting are certainly to blame as well. The debate over whether we should legalize drugs, or at least some drugs, is forcing us to reconsider old beliefs. About half of all Americans believe marijuana should be legalized today, up from about 12 % in 1969. This is certainly a good trend, and I guarantee that much like with gay marriage, we will see in the future more and more states legalize it.

But the issue here is whether legalizing marijuana, or all drugs, would decrease crime and in particular, violent crime. Well it would certainly reduce our prison population, and reduce annual arrests by several hundred thousand. These criminal records act as scarlet letters on many young men, ruining their chances of getting a job and getting careers as they get older. Plus when you arrest many young non-violent drug offenders and put them into prison with hardened criminals, they are more likely to come out in a worse condition than when they went in, and this exacerbates the problem of violent crime. I certainly support the full legalization of marijuana as I know it will reduce prison populations, stop negative cycles of criminality, and end the racist disproportional drug arrests of minorities over whites.

Besides issues with drugs and how its illegality contributes to violent crime, I largely blame America's problem with violence to be a moral defect. Most of our violent crimes are being committed by black and Latino men, who are cloaked in a thug culture that celebrates all the most destructive things as virtues to be aspired to. As long as this persists, any success gained creating jobs and legalizing drugs will be mitigated. I've said it before and I will say it again, unless there is a moral shift amongst our inner city black and Latino populations that learns to appreciate human life and recognizes the harm in the "thug life", we will continue to see them kill themselves, disproportionately fill our prisons and be under represented in our colleges.

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