So what do you say about young black men in Philadelphia taking the subway downtown to find white people to beat up? There are two standard responses, one more sophisticated than the other one, and both useless.
I have a better one, but first let's look at why we have to let the typical ones go.
The less sophisticated one, unfortunately taken up by Mayor Michael Nutter in a church talk last Sunday, is that black parents need to shape up. "Get a hold of your kids before we have to," he intoned.
As Rocky the Flying Squirrel said, "That trick never works." Boys will be boys, especially when most of them have only one overworked parent, likely raised in the same street culture her sons were. People have been getting all flinty on inner-city black parents for 50 years now, and all it has ever created is some editorials (or, in the case of Bill Cosby, a book or three).
One of the editorials this time was Annette John-Hall's at the Inquirer, which brings us in its way to the more sophisticated, but equally useless, take on the flash mobs. John-Hall seems to have found Nutter's address faintly ridiculous — pompous, more precisely, with the implication that he is missing some larger reason for these young men's behavior.
She doesn't spell it out, but I can guess what she's thinking: These youths are acting out against a racist society. That's deep, but it's only useful if we're talking about a kind of racism that we can conceive of eliminating.
Beyond Institutional Racism
Are they dealing with the kind of racism on view these days in a movie like The Help, about the Old South? Clearly not. Presumably we mean "institutional" racism. But even here, to figure out what we really want to do about the youths' behavior, we have to get specific.
Are they mainly targeting white people for beatings because they're angry that low-skill factory jobs aren't as available as they were 40 years ago? Obviously that's too abstract. Are they angry because white people get slightly better car loans than black people? Are they pushing a white woman to the ground because they're angry that their school isn't great?
Clearly, no. I spell that out for a reason: We could eliminate these "institutional" brands of racism today and these guys would still be hitting the streets. Plus, asking America to pardon them for something as abstract as all this is too long-lined an argument to ever create any consensus. As Nutter put it, "I don't care what your economic status is; you do not have a right to beat someone's ass on the street." Let's face it: He's right.
So if yelling at parents doesn't help us and intellectualizing about societal racism doesn't, either, what will? In fact, racial conflict is the issue here, but in a more concrete — and thus addressable — way. Namely: Who are the white people these guys usually interact with? Cops.
A Persistent Police Presence
Cops trawling their neighborhoods and housing projects, pounding on doors, interrogating people, pushing some against walls. Some of the cops are bad ones, hurting people for no reason. And all of the cops, good and bad, are there because they are assigned to fight the "war on drugs." It's their job, and sometimes they catch people selling, sure. But that requires spending vast amounts of time just being there. Bothering people.
What makes these mob kids mad at white people is not something as distant and cerebral as "institutional racism." It's that most of their interactions with white people are edgy, starkly real, face-to-face conflicts with cops. If the cops had no reason to be in their neighborhoods, new generations of black teens would grow up with no reason to think of whites as an enemy.
And the cops would have no reason to be in those neighborhoods if there were no war on drugs — that is, yes, if today's Prohibition were discontinued and drugs were legalized. Not to mention that if drugs were legal, it would eliminate the black market that leads so many inner-city teens to sell them for a living.
The lesson, therefore, is this: These disgusting flash mobs are one more reason to support ending the war on drugs.
Important things are happening on this lately, much more important than performances about how America isn't postracial. "Isn't it time to put aside the posturing and have a fundamental debate about alternatives to this failed war?" That's from none other than the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has officially come out against the drug war this summer.
Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) are sponsoring a bill in Congress to end the war on pot, and while it would surprise few that Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is on board, how about Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.)? Public figures are increasingly united in the realization that after 40 years, the war on drugs has been a failure. Drugs are as available now as they were then — and as cheap — and the prisons are overflowing.
Steps Toward Change
And then last month the NAACP took its place in the battle against the war on drugs. I have had my cavils about the NAACP in the past, but this is the most admirable thing I have seen it do in my lifetime, and I will grumble about the NAACP no more.
These are important developments: A wall is crumbling. There are even special things happening in Philadelphia itself. District Attorney Seth Williams has essentially legalized marijuana. He understandably would rather that we not put it that way, but possession of up to 30 grams is now classified as a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor and doesn't go into the record.
This is the kind of thing that, if it gradually leads to an end to the entire Prohibitionist charade, will stop activities like young black men hurting white people for sport.
I confidently predict — as I did the election of Barack Obama back in 2006, when everybody was telling me I was crazy — that if the war on drugs ended, then in just 10 years the notion of young black men trawling the streets looking for white people to jump on would sound as antique as a blaxploitation movie. Letting go of the war on weed, as in Philadelphia, is a great first step — and hopefully one along the way to the complete dismantling of the New Prohibition, which would be, in its way, the second civil rights revolution that many wish for.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.