Culture, Root Causes, and Discussion Taboos

In a basketball tournament for teenage girls last November, one player punched an opponent, knocking her to the floor and giving her a concussion. What did the offending girl’s mother think of this blatant assault and battery? She was the one who instructed her daughter to do it. Latria Shonty Hunt was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor but let off with an apology and restitution. See this story by Vikki Vargas and Heather Navarro for NBC LA.

People have long debated the “root causes” of crime, and the discussion usually focuses on income. Poverty is the root cause of crime. Government programs are the solution to poverty. So let’s just spend more on government anti-poverty programs and crime will go down. That was how the Great Society was sold to America in the 1960s, and it was a cataclysmic failure. But that does not stop people from urging us to repeat the history.

Victor Hugo notwithstanding, we have enough of a social safety net in place that no one is going to jail for stealing loaves of bread to feed starving children. We need to look elsewhere for root causes. A powerful but under-discussed root cause of crime is culture. Too many young people are subject to influences from those around them that cause them to choose the path of crime rather than the path of law-abidingness. In the case of Ms. Hunt’s daughter, the very person who should have been teaching her to obey the law, respect the rights of others, and generally be a good person was teaching her just the opposite. Even kids with good parents are subject to bad influences from peers and popular culture.

So why don’t we hear more about culture as a root cause of crime?

Rav Arona explains in the City Journal. “The rising tide of political correctness has thwarted honest discussion about the centrality of culture in shaping life outcomes. That cultures vary widely in their prioritization of education, family, and vocation has become an unspeakable proposition on the left.”

As a result of the taboo, facts that refute the dominant narrative are not widely known. They are not hard to find if you look for them, though. From the City Journal article:

Progressives commonly point to the high incarceration and violent-crime commission rates in the black community as evidence of “systemic racism” or the “effects of slavery and Jim Crow.” Systemic racial oppression, the argument runs, has helped to lock the black community into a vicious circle of poverty and criminality. But many data points don’t fit this narrative. Incarceration rates didn’t start ballooning until the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1979, the imprisonment risk for black men was 26.8 percent, sharply higher than the rate between 1945 and 1949, when it was only 10.4 percent. Put another way, the black incarceration rate rose from 1,313 per 100,000 in 1960 to 4,347 per 100,000 in 2010 (though incarceration rates have declined since the late 1990s). The systemic-racism theory would make more sense had black crime rates peaked—or at least been very high—during the height of racial oppression. But, as criminologist Barry Latzer notes, that isn’t the case:

“Black homicide rates were about the same as white homicide rates during slavery. They frequently were higher in the North than in the more oppressive South throughout the 20th century. And they hit new peaks in the late 1960s, a time when whites supported the most sweeping civil-rights legislation in American history.”

Along with time variations, the dominant narrative is also refuted by comparing crime rates in immigrant groups with equal or greater poverty and discrimination disadvantages but different cultures.

One can write these truths in the City Journal or Substack, but can they be said in a college classroom or on a campus as an outside speaker? People have been fired, “constructively discharged,” shouted down, and even assaulted for lesser deviations from woke dogma.

The first step to solving problems is accurate diagnosis. Free, open discourse, diversity of viewpoint, and tolerance of dissenting views are essential in getting to the truth. In the case of crime, failure to get to the truth and find effective solutions can kill people.

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