A 58-Year-Old Black Man Reflects on the Death Around Him

Conflicted thoughts about how to stop crime, advance equality and save lives

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Earlier this month, I defended Black Lives Matter in the ongoing debate about whether it should focus on black victims of police violence or broaden its activism to include all black victims of violent crime, even when the perpetrators are black too. Soon after, a reader named Erskine Hawkins sent me a series of emails that captured the conflicted feelings that many in the black community have about the  deaths around them.

What follows are his reflections.

They don’t come down neatly on either side of the debate. And while they range across a lot of subjects, I found the whole of his extended correspondence worth reading. After commenting that “what Black people who criticize BLM's approach are trying to express is that this isn't enough,” he delved into his own family’s story:

My first cousin was shot in February three years ago. I went to see him in the hospital. When you are shot in the abdomen they they leave your gut laid open. It helps the healing process. It’s knowledge I could have lived without.

His little sister, a NASA engineer, was devastated. His mother, a school principal, and his father, a small business owner were forced to move from their home of over a decade in an enclave of McMansions in one of the many middle class Black communities scattered around Atlanta because the kid who shot him wasn't even arrested. He shot my cousin as he was walking away from an argument in the shooter's front yard, so due to trespass laws the police's hands were tied. And I will mention this was the second person the perpetrator had shot. So they feared for their son's life.

A week later, my half brother was murdered at 20, leaving behind a little girl who will never know her father. My father, the holder of a Masters in Psychology, and his mother, a trained nurse who is an administrator for a home care company, do everything they can to support their granddaughter.  I bring up the degrees and jobs to let you know that the genocide in my community is not just a product of poverty. The shooters and victims were raised in middle class neighborhoods.

It is the product of the oppression that is part of being Black in America. It bothers me The Atlantic tries to explain away what is happening in my community by blaming it on poverty and segregation. This is only part of the problem.

He went on to defend Black Lives Matter against its critics:

BLM is a good thing.

I don't think it is enough. But I love the fact they have taken on police brutality. I had a police officer stick a gun in my face in my twenties. I was reaching for my wallet, which he had asked me to do. That issue is a real one too.

I have two sons. The oldest is a second year resident at a medical school. The youngest is finishing up work on a degree in mechanical engineering. They have both been harassed by the police. It's part of being a young Black man. My wife and I hate they have to through that harassment and we fear what might happen to them when they are out and about.

What happened to my cousin and my brother is simply too common in my community for it to be ignored, but there are too many problems that need to be addressed in the Black community for BLM to take them all on. I am glad to see young Black people picking up the torch passed to them. It is time. I fear they may be marginalized. I hope they are smart enough and courageous enough to win their fight. I know there will be more work to be done. And one question. Why are there never discussions on the returns on crime. These returns are what has my community under siege.

I asked the reader what he meant by “returns on crime.” He began to explain as follows:

When I was twelve I read my dad’s copy of Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. It’s the story of Claude Brown's coming of age in Harlem during the great migration. In the preface he asks, where are the colored people of New York to go for relief from racism? They are already in the promised land. He goes on to describe his childhood running with New York street gangs. He eventually reforms and by the time the story ends the former street criminal is on his way to college and a new life.

Incredibly, after reading this story of how one could come up from difficult circumstances all I got from it was how appealing it was to be a gangster.

This is one of the returns on crime: the emotional returns you get from the excitement of the gangster life. Black kids and others from America's assimilating margins are drawn to these thrills by their status as cultural outsiders. Think about the young Italian kids in A Bronx Tale and how attractive Sonny's lifestyle looked to them. During my years as a pot-head in college, I got my chance to run with the thugs. My parents divorced and my mother moved to a middle-class apartment complex. I lived with her while I attended school at Morehouse. There I met a kid I will call Slim, whose parents were mob associates. We became friends because I gave him rides to pick up garbage bags full of marijuana for sale.

Slim never worked but was always paid. This is the financial return on crime (Meyer Lansky would understand). This was the seventies. Right around the corner lay the eighties and crack. I smoked cocaine for eight long, hard years.

I got my graduate degree in accounting while running with the best young property criminals in Atlanta. There is a thrill that comes from breaking into someone's house or holding a gun on someone that you can't understand unless you have lived among marginalized people. Once again, the emotional returns on crime. I am a third generation college graduate, but could not resist the pull of the streets. The best burglar I ever knew was the son of a business owner. A bank robber I ran with was the son of a working class mother who worked two jobs to keep him with nice stuff.

The second best burglar I knew was the child of two college graduates and grew up in a middle class home just like I did. Racism gave us a feeling of carte blanche to live outside the laws of society, or so we thought. This is the psychological return on criminal behavior. I eventually realized how stupid this type of thinking is, but I am also 58 years old.

Crack drove the emotional, financial, and psychological returns on crime to heights not seen since Prohibition. And just like during prohibition, the stratospheric returns on crime led to a soaring murder rate as young guns fought for market share at the business end of a gun. Your magazine had a story on Angola not too long ago. Mitch Landrieu asked a con about the murder and mayhem in the streets of New Orleans. The guy replied that the shooting started in the eighties. He was right. I saw the transition in Atlanta. Geoff Canada wrote about this same transition on the streets of New York in the eighties in Fist Stick Knife Gun. Al Capone could have wrote about the same effect on Chicago in the twenties.

What we are seeing now is the unintended consequences of the illegality of drugs. A high-demand drug like cocaine led young people who saw few other prospects for success to turn to drug sales to make their mark. And like any other illegal activity with an exceptionally high returns, it led to a significant increase in homicides. The declining returns on crime due to crack's Ebola-like destruction of its addicts (crackheads either take the cure or die long before alcoholics) have over time led to a decline in the murder rate. The recent small uptick in the murder rate in some cities appears to me to be a regression to the mean.

And a city like Chicago suffers on because El Chapo has maintained abnormally high returns on crime due to the heroin trade. And, of course, the emotional returns can be seen in gangster rap and shows like Empire. Black people have embraced the Thug Life because it gives a people lacking in power a chance to feel powerful. This feeling has been a part of Black middle class communities since the waning days of the Civil Rights movement.

Sorry for being so long winded, and I still didn't fully answer your question about returns on crime. I don't expect or want you to agree, but I appreciate you hearing me out. Black lives do matter, and it’s good to see young people pushing that agenda rather than pushing Black people off the planet, as Cody Scott described murder in Monsta: Autobiography of a Crip.

The very next day, Erskine Hawkins wrote me again:

Please remember the name Marquis Stevens for me. Good man: wife and three kids, inventory manager for the car dealership where I work. Proud of his oldest son, who just started playing football for Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama. Proud of his youngest son, the star high-school linebacker. His baby daughter, the apple of his eye.
Marquis was shot and killed in a robbery last night. I promise you a police officer didn't do it. That's a petty thing for me to say, but we were cool. And I am tired of seeing Black people killing other Black people. It's a genocide.

Marquis was the type of person your magazine has been advocating for during this anniversary season of The Monyihan Report. He was a reformed drug dealer who decided to turn his life around after doing a bid in prison. He had worked his way up to inventory manager here. He was married to an accountant. He loved his family. We used to talk sometimes about being a Black man in America. I'll tell you a couple of things he said to me.

One: people who grow up in a world where they can't see any opportunity for them will make one for themselves. I think as much as anything he was speaking on his own life.

Two: in the world of work you always have to watch your back if you're black. Even when it feels like you're making it, it can be taken from you in an instant if you get on the wrong side of a white person. He was right on both counts. The first goes to those returns on crime I was telling you about. And the second can happen to anyone, even white people. It’s just that if you're Black and you are old enough you have seen this happen to too many Black people to not believe racism has something to do with it.

My brother's grandmother was telling me and my father last Thanksgiving how almost every Black family has a tale now about a young family member who was murdered. And how it didn't used to be that way.

I finally asked him, “What do you think we should do about crime?”

He answered at length:

First, what I know will never happen: drugs should be legalized. History teaches us that crime increased in the United States from 1905 to 1931. Then it fell as we moved into The Great Depression. What changed? Prohibition was rescinded and restrictions placed on immigration began to take hold. This combination dramatically reduced returns on crime and the attractiveness of those returns to America's immigrant children.

I'm an open borders kind of guy, so I'm not keen on restrictions on migrants.

However, history teaches that when demand for an illegal good is high enough it will elevate returns on crime to a point where supply will meet this demand. This boat should have sailed during the Nixon administration. Instead we decided to fight a war on drugs. So what followed a few years later was the advent of crack and super high returns on crime.

If those super high returns had never occurred we would not have the genocide we see in the post-crack Black community. I'm just telling what I saw. I once sat at a table in the mid-80s and heard two people plot the murder of another in the same way you and I might contemplate what we wanted to order for breakfast. I don't know if they placed that order, but I will never forget how calm the discussion was that morning.

I used to tell people that America thinks the only things Black people are good at are the three Ds: dribbling, dancing, and slinging dope. It is unfortunate that far too many young Black men feel the same way. It takes a special gift to moonwalk like Michael or rock a pass like Magic, but  anybody can stand on a corner and yell, “Yo, got them dimes” and squeeze a trigger.

Of course, every occupation has its hazards. And you have to accept the hazards to be successful in your chosen endeavor. The risks related to a life of crime are such that given other choices most people will select another path to success. It is an American tradition that in assimilating communities (familiar with paddy wagons) young men of the generations born in America will see some of their best opportunities in a life of crime. Meyer Lansky, Lucy Luciano, and Whitey Bulger would surely agree.

So if we won't reduce the returns on crime, we must  point a path to other avenues of success. If Carlo Gambino had come along now I assert with the opportunities available he would have been successful in some other career and never would have had to become a criminal legend.

As a Black parent, you have to fight hard against the three Ds and their financial, emotional and psychological returns. Especially because too many young Black men and women see so little opportunity elsewhere. My youngest son has been encouraged to be a businessman from the time he was a child. This is our way of painting a picture of a success he can have that no one can easily take away as long as he works hard. Will it work? We aren't sure, but we taught both of our sons an HBCU was the way to go. The oldest graduated from Hampton before graduating from the Boston University School of Medicine and the youngest is a senior at Tuskegee.

Too often in my full and now part-time career as a teacher, I have been told by young Black men they don't see a place for themselves in the world. It’s hard for me to argue with them. They have seen this world crush the dreams of too many men who look like them. And it bothers the young women to see them this way. I've been asked many times by young women between 18 and 25, “Why does every Black man want to be in the music business?” It’s because they see it as a path to success. Just like crime.

Declining returns have made criminal activity less financially attractive. But the emotional and psychological returns it provides to the marginalized remain high. This is because there has been no parallel increase in the returns on other opportunities. Or at least they can't see these too slow increases. And the crushing of your dreams is a form of oppression.

Do I blame mainstream America for this? No, I can't. Because it does Black people no good to think this way. The Black community needs to tap into the resilience that Monyihan noted. Black opportunity must create itself.

If Jay-Z and Oprah can go from poverty to plenty in less than a lifetime by choosing the Jewish path to assimilation then why can't more Black people make this choice in engineering and science? Because they don't understand what is happening in America. But there I go drifting away from the point I am trying to make.

America's choice has been to ratchet up the risks related to criminal activity. Having committed crimes, I will tell you this can be an effective strategy if you increase the certainty of incarceration. Prison terms are not so relevant unless you're locked up because who sets out to get arrested?

Ah, but if you ramp up the certainty of arrest.

First we tried draconian drug laws. The state of New York set up severe mandatory minimum sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the country eventually wound up with Columbine (I want you to think about that one). My boy Slim called these laws the young ni--- get paid act because criminals, rather than give up selling of drugs, simply started letting juveniles sell drugs because they were two young for the sentencing laws to apply to them. And of course the youngsters took over and turned drug dealing into a Lord-of-the-Flies-style activity (see Fist Stick Knife Gun).

You have to love those unintended consequences.

Then Broken Windows policing, which increased the certainty of arrest and created the need for BLM. I am a business major and the application of risk and return comes naturally to me. Criminologists should discuss crime patterns with PhDs in finance. They can explain the relationship.

This doesn't help us at the moment though.

Crack drove emotional and psychological returns on crime so high that even as they decline the Black community is left to deal with the disastrous choice to deny people products that they want, ignoring the fact that there are two sets of  problems with drugs: abuse, which is best handled by treatment, and the crimes surrounding the illegality of drugs.

I've seen it argued in The Atlantic that many crimes are not drug crimes. I beg to differ. Many of the murders committed over the past thirty years are drug crimes. They have to do with selling drugs rather than using them. When someone is locked up for killing someone for selling them bad dope, it's a drug crime, even if there was no dope in the perpetrator's possession. Wouldn't it be better if they could go to Walgreen's and get a refund? I know of at least two acquaintances who would probably be alive today if they worked at Walgreen's instead of the trap.

And I am not trying to be critical of The Atlantic. I know you are trying and that's good to see. I hope this helps you in your striving for a better America. Keep hope alive. That will eventually keep more Black people alive.

He concluded our correspondence with one last email:

View the Civil Rights Movement as if it was a Black journey across the ocean to America. If you accept the idea that we are, in fact, like relatively recent immigrants, you can make comparisons and seek solutions to the problems that the Black community is still grappling with.

If you accept the metaphor that Blacks are like relatively recent immigrants then you can compare the Irish in Ireland and the Irish who migrated to America to Black Americans before and after the Civil Rights movement. Certain similarities become apparent. The Irish were oppressed in Ireland by the British. Blacks were oppressed by a British colony. Blacks were enslaved and the Irish were consigned to a lower caste. There were laws that denied both groups the right to educate their children. The women of both groups were forced to sleep with their oppressors.

Both groups relied on the church for leadership and succor in their struggles against oppressors. Deemed second-class citizens by the laws of their native lands, they learned to use social agitation and political activism to fight for their rights.

When we moved from that psychological colony of oppression I choose to call Black America to the United States of America, we like the Irish before us continued to use the same approach to our problems. And just like the Irish family of the late 19th century, the Black family broke down under the weight of oppression during my community's assimilation era.

People tend to stick to what has worked. So we chose what I call the Irish path to assimilation. It works. The problem is it is a high cost, inefficient approach.

The Irish community eventually bifurcated into large groups known as the Shanty Irish and the Lace Curtain Irish. You see the same distinction in the post-movement Black community (large amounts of poverty, a large middle class). Many mainstream Americans considered the Irish impossible to assimilate. Their community suffered from a high crime rate. The Irishmen who built the Illinois Central Railroad were nicknamed the murder-a-mile Irish because legend holds that for every mile of track they lay one Irishman killed another Irishman.

Moynihan probably knew that Irish fathers abandoned their children in high numbers while they were assimilating. So although he did not see a group of immigrants, I'm sure he recognized the symptoms of a breakdown in family structure. The Irish eventually overcame. I see Black Americans doing the same.

Ours is a difficult transition for three reasons. One, we already had to overcome exclusion on our native soil. Two, we don't realize we are now being included in America by that pledging process known as Americanization. And three, through no fault of our own we have chosen the most inefficient, high-cost approach to assimilation. We just ddn't know any better.

My preference is that Black people shift to the Jewish approach of economic self-reliance and educational self-development. The drug dealers of the eighties pursued the first part of this approach with a vengeance. Black people need to apply this strategy through legal business operations and investments to accelerate the pace of change in the distinction between mainstream America and Black Americans.

BLM is a good first step in the sense that the only people who can lead this transition are young Black people. I wish for a concurrent rise in an entrepreneur led economic approach to assimilation now that we have crossed over.

It is more efficient.

It would not have worked before the movement, just like the Jewish approach failed in Europe under conditions of exclusion from acceptance in Russia, Germany, and so many other countries. You have to apply the right approach to the larger circumstance. America loves her immigrant children, but she pulls them to her bosom only slowly. What Black people must accept is what we intuitively understand. We are America's Stepchild. Like Cinderella in the fairy tale, we continue to wonder why the only mother we have ever known treats us so bad. We must realize at some point that no fairy godmother of governmental intervention can relieve our difficult circumstance, no presidential Prince Charming can slip on the glass slipper of equality so we for once might be the belle of the ball at the grand dance of Americana.

Eventually, we must pick up our needle and thread and sew together a community swathed in a gown consisting of economic self reliance and communal self-love.

Otherwise the reaping will continue as our children are subjected to the weekly Hunger Games of murder and mayhem that is far too normal in far too many of our communities. There is so much I could say after thirty-four years of seeing my people in this light. But I think this is more than enough for this moment. I hope this gives you some food for thought.

Indeed, it did. I thank the reader for his thoughtful correspondence.