Reading the Riots Act

Riots that started in London’s Hackney neighborhood last week spread quickly across London and to other large British cities, as rioters saw policemen standing back as they looted and burned.

Meanwhile, in major American cities – Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee — a new phenomenon is surfacing – “flash mobs” of black teenagers, utilizing social media to organize (like the London rioters) – who suddenly appear to terrorize whites or loot stores. The Chicago police had to close the city’s most crowded beach, on a holiday weekend, because they could not ensure the safety of bathers.

Max Hastings describes how British welfare policies have created a “layer of young people with no skills, education, values, or aspirations. They have no ‘life’, as we know it; they simply exist.” In particular, they lack the most basic moral sentiment of empathy – for example, for the hardworking immigrant storeowners whose stores they scorched. “We want to show the rich people that we can do whatever we want,” two young female rioters told a London reporter.

Theodore Darlrymple, who knows the British underclass well from his work as a prison psychiatrist, describes young people who have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. Six hundred thousand Britons 26 or under have never worked a day; 17% of youth are not in education, training, or employed. But dependence does not breed gratitude, only a sense of entitlement to more.

Both the anger and the lack of moral restraint of the mobs reflect the declining culture of big city ghettos. Though more intensive cop-on-the-beat policing has brought American inner city crime rates down in recent years, the result has been increasing numbers of young black men spending much of their teens and twenties behind bars. Apart from crime, those inner cities have degenerated considerably since the 1970s by almost every measure: unemployment, graduation rates, achievements on standardized tests, teenage pregnancies, drug use.

There will be no more Great Society programs to ameliorate the decline because the money is not there. The evidence is mounting, in any event, that the whole panoply of social welfare programs contributed to the social breakdown. Support for single mothers helped black men avoid responsibility for their children. Seventy per cent of black children today are born to single mothers. Welfare further broke the connection between effort and advancement that even the most menial entry level job.

And government has contributed to the high rates of black unemployment in other ways as well. In the last decade, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles have shed 700,000 jobs between them, leaving an ever higher percentage of inner city populations dependent on government welfare to survive. The progressive impulse for a more orderly, non-polluting, bureaucratic society, requiring licenses and permits for everything, explains Walter Mead Russell, has resulted in fewer and fewer of the metal shops and small businesses that formerly employed poorly educated immigrants and blacks – admittedly in noisy, unpleasant conditions and at low wages, but at least providing first rung jobs towards future advancement.

Black economist Walter Williams points out that at the turn of the twentieth century unemployment for blacks was of shorter duration than for whites. Black unemployment rates were lower until 1930, when a federal minimum wage was first enacted, destroying in the process many of the lower paying jobs blacks had filled. The Davis-Bacon Act, which required the union rate to be paid on all federal construction projects, further disadvantaged blacks, who were denied access to many unions.

The social disintegration of the ghettos is not just the legacy of slavery. The “yobs” in England are as likely to be white as black. The Harlem in which Thomas Sowell, another prominent black economist, was raised and the Philadelphia ghetto in which his close friend Williams grew up were far closer in time to slavery. Yet they were far safer and cleaner than those neighborhoods today. When Williams drove a cab, he used to sleep between shifts in his cab, something that would be suicidal today. Black children were far more likely to be raised in stable, two-parent families. And there were jobs for black teenagers who wanted to work.

The average black child born today starts so far behind that nothing within the power of a non-totalitarian state, unwilling to claim each child as belonging to it at birth, can compensate. As Mead puts it, “All the social workers in the world can’t [provide] a nine-year old child who has never seen a healthy family . . . with the kind of psychological balance and strength children get from growing up in a loving and stable home.”

Nothing less than moral regeneration – not more social programs – can save the ghettos. But who will repair the impact of being born to a teenage, crack-addicted mother. Decades of government Head Start programs for pre-schoolers have shown little impact. By then, it’s already too late.

No one understands better than Torah Jews that the hardest changes to make are those that must come from within. And that is precisely what makes the downward spiral of inner city neighborhoods so terrifying.

First published in Mishpacha, August 17.

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2 Responses

  1. Shea says:

    I was hoping the author could share his views on what affect the welfare programs mentioned above which have allegedly so hurt the ‘ghetto communities’ have impacted Jewish urban communities?

    Is there a negative impact on Jewish communities who benefit from these programs also or does the author feel that this is some how specific to a particular groups within society?

  2. Ellen says:

    Shea – if one looks around the charedi communities in Israel (which is what I assume you’re alluding to), one sees some hurt by an entitlement philosophy yet many more who are under the strong and beautiful influence of Torah education. Some of the best-behaved children come from charedi households, some of the most self-sacrificing and kind people are raised within the charedi sector.

    So really I think we’d need to turn your question around a bit: “Among charedi families who rely on the Israeli welfare system for their primary means of support, how do most avoid falling prey to the entitlement mentality, and instead use the handout constructively?”

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