As if President-elect Barack Obama didn't have enough waiting for him on his platter at the White House, a new report on juvenile violence offers another flavor for him to chew on: the color of crime.
Remember the backlash he stirred up last year with a speech in a black Chicago church when he criticized absentee fathers and negligent mothers? The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other critics asked why Obama singled out us black parents when other ethnic groups misbehave, too. A disturbing new report on youth violence offers an answer: Our kids are killing each other more than other ethnic groups' kids do.
After more than a decade of overall decline in violent crimes, a study of federal crime statistics by Northeastern University criminologists brings on the gloom. It finds the number of homicides involving black male juveniles as victims rose 31 percent and as perpetrators by 43 percent between 2002 and 2007.
During the same period, murders by white youth actually decreased slightly. The FBI statistics on which the study is based don't count Hispanics separately from whites. Hispanic crime rates are between three and four times that of whites, according to contributing editor Heather MacDonald in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Counting Hispanics separately from whites, she writes, would make the 10-to-1 disparity between black and white homicide rates reported in the Northeastern study even larger.
The report is particularly depressing in light of the good news to which we have become accustomed since the early 1990s. That's when crime suddenly dropped, despite some experts' doomsday predictions of a rise in young "superpredators."
In fact, one of the experts who predicted a crime rise was James Alan Fox, a Northeastern criminal justice professor who co-authored the new study with Assistant Prof. Marc Swatt.
It didn't take long for one of Fox's critics, "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt, to note in his New York Times blog a glaring omission. The Times coverage and most of Fox's report fail to mention a 15 percent rise in the overall population of black youths.
Based on changes in population, the number of perpetrators would have been expected to rise from a little over 800 to nearly 1,000," writes Levitt, a University of Chicago economist. "Knowing that," he writes, "the actual rise to roughly 1,150 doesn't seem that noteworthy."
Maybe not, as a mathematical statistic. The families of the victims of those extra 150 youthful perps probably have another view.
"Freakonomics," you might recall is the best-seller that extrapolated, among other bombshells, that the 1990s crime drop may have resulted from the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s. Other experts have pointed out, among other arguments, that Canada experienced a similar crime drop without a similar change in abortion laws.
Who's right? After years of reading reports and interviewing experts, I am convinced that crime is like the stock market: A lot of people know how it works, but no one can tell you when the next boom or crash will come. But, as a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, we know it when we see it.
We don't know if Fox's crime surge will continue up or slide down. But we have some pretty good ideas of what works in fighting crime and what doesn't. We also know that if we don't do anything, we invite another trend in the wrong direction.
A big hint of Fox's preferred wish list is offered in the title of the report he co-authored: "The Recent Surge in Homicides Involving Young Black Males and Guns: Time to Reinvest in Prevention and Crime Control." That's something Congress and the incoming Obama administration should keep in mind as they wonder where to spend billions in stimulus dollars.
We can use more federal support for police on the street and other traditional law enforcement funding that was trimmed back during the Bush administration, the Fox report suggests. We could also fight harder to forge right-left coalitions behind tougher prosecution of crimes committed with a gun.
But we black Americans cannot rely on government help alone. Nothing stirs more mischief in young minds and bodies than to have too much time on their hands. The Fox report notes that most youth crimes are committed in the hours after school and before evening. That's why Obama's comments last Father's Day in Chicago's Apostolic Church urged young parents to fill that empty time with useful activities.
"Obama was merely paying attention to an unavoidable fact that race men are obligated to point out," Jabari Asim, editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, observes in his new book "What Obama Means": "Where black Americans are concerned, there is always more at stake."
Despite the naysayers, I think Obama's message was welcome. It didn't hurt his black support on Election Day.