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?”