Commentary Magazine


Liberals and Looting

To the Editor:

What certainty Midge Decter displays [“Looting and Liberal Racism,” September] as she assures us that the blackout looting in New York City’s ghettos and certain poorer neighborhoods last July had nothing to do with the economic and social factors widely believed to have triggered that behavior! The looters looted because they were nasty, greedy, anti-social young people, the author tells us, and her sharp pen excoriates with equal vigor both perpetrators and anyone who would argue that the hopelessness of their lives and futures might possibly have been conducive to their destructive actions.

Miss Decter’s translation of her personal convictions into unassailable truth might be more convincing, however, if it didn’t run so consistently counter to the facts.

In the New York Times of April 7, 1977, we learn the following: “20,000 Youngsters Apply for Summer Jobs.” With 700 tired and shivering young people lined up for their first chance to enroll for this summer’s youth jobs, a West Side principal unlocked the doors of his junior high school at 3:30 A.M. (the following morning) to shelter the anxious job seekers, among whom were about 200 girls. Some had waited since 1 P.M. on Tuesday (the preceding day). The waiting lines were photographed; I am certain there must have been some whites there, but one only saw black faces in the photographs. In Brownsville, 2,000 waited outside an elementary school for as long as five hours through the night, only to be told at 8:50 A.M. (the next morning) that no more than 500 could be interviewed during the day. The lineups in the Bronx began at 3 A.M., etc., etc.

We are further informed by Miss Decter of “all sorts of jobs that from one month or year to the next cannot find any takers.” If this can be demonstrated, then in the name of heaven, let’s have the kind of training and remedial programs for youth for which we have been pleading. However, if it is not a matter of skill but is, in fact, an unskilled job, Miss Decter argues that government is impeding the process of employment by insisting on a minumum wage, thus making unskilled labor too expensive. For years we have struggled to achieve the minimum-wage law; should we dispense with it now?

We are also given this information: “For large numbers of those young men on street corners, it does not pay to take a job.” We of course agree completely with the implication of Miss Decter’s statement that there is a dire need for the competition between “welfare” and the “job” to cease. In Washington, we are struggling to achieve this objective.

There is no doubt that this unfortunate behavior, including the “blackout” destructiveness, does exist among black young people and others, but there is the further and important query as to what inspires this destructive tendency. This is Miss Decter’s answer with respect to the spree of the blackout looting: our young people, especially the blacks, “are getting the message from the liberal culture, more subtly but just as surely as from any old-time Southern sheriff, that they are, inherently and by virtue of their race, inferior. There are virtually no crimes they can commit that someone with great influence does not rush in to excuse on the grounds that we had no right to expect anything else.” Elsewhere: “The message they are given, in short, is that they are not fully enough human to be held morally responsible for their own behavior.”

It is indeed curious to tag liberalism with “excusing” or condoning anti-social conduct. If liberalism is to be related at all to the problem of irresponsible and destructive behavior, it is in the direction of understanding the misbehavior of our young people and doing something about its prevention or extinction. We see liberalism as “self-fulfillment within the framework of the common good.” Misbehavior must be condemned and punished, but also understood and dealt with constructively.

We should also keep in mind that, unfortunately, there is a form of “white-collar” looting going on, both in public and private life, in and outside of Washington. The tarnished models of these adults are bound to have a damaging impact on our youth.

John Slawson
New York City

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To the Editor:

There is, alas, far too much truth in Midge Decter’s article for liberals not to be made uncomfortable, if not actuely disturbed, by it. Lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay, written in another context, are quite apposite: “Pity me that the heart is slow to learn/What the swift mind beholds at every turn.”

But the article is nevertheless gravely flawed because it tells but one part of the whole truth and fails to tell so much that is crucial to a fuller understanding of the problem.

Of course the looting was disgraceful, and those liberals who excuse or condone this kind of behavior deserve to be excoriated. Though all human behavior is explainable, if we care to probe deeply enough, all human behavior is not excusable. It should not be forgotten that many of Hitler’s Brown Shirts also were “disadvantaged” youths.

But among the factors that Miss Decter does not deal with at all, for example, is the reality that vast numbers of people in our society are bent on getting something for nothing, do so with impunity more often than not, and this fact is not lost on the poor in the urban ghettos. The nature of the opportunities available for respectable larceny, of course, may vary widely. Well-to-do citizens evade income taxes; landlords fail to deliver services they owe tenants; merchants give less than fair values to customers or withhold sales taxes they owe the city; employees steal merchandise from their employers; public officials and corporate executives pad expense accounts; workers “rip-off” employers and the community by consciously failing to do a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, secure in the awareness that their conduct is protected by their powerful unions; policemen are “on the take” from gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers.

These are but a few illustrations of the corruption which, tragically, is so pervasive in our society, a good deal of which is highly visible to the ghetto poor. It seems clear that a great many non-poor people are willing to do for material gain whatever they can manage to get away with. To intimate, as in effect Miss Decter does, that many of the black and brown poor are morally worse than the rest of us is poisonous. To blame their warped attitudes and behavior on liberals, though it does make for a dramatic article, is a gross oversimplification and, at least in part, a “red herring.”

Miss Decter claims that there are all sorts of jobs “that from one month or year to the next cannot find any takers.” She neglects to mention, however, what happened in New York City last spring when a limited number of minimum-wage summer jobs were made available to youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. As reported in the New York Times of April 7, 20,000 youngsters in poverty neighborhoods lined up in the cold many hours before the offices were even scheduled to begin to accept applications. In just one section of the South Bronx, a youth-job director said, “We could use 5,000 jobs,” more than double the allotment.

Why did Miss Decter fail to weave into her article items like that one? Although it may not quite fit the message she is striving so hard (and with such consummate skill) to convey, it would have lent some of the balance and perspective which are so glaringly absent from the article.

Samuel Rabinove
White Plains, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . I was glad that Midge Decter, in her article, disagreed with the explanation given by civic souls that society’s neglect contributed excessively to the raping of stores darkened by the electrical breakdown. Tax-burdened, dues-paying, work-ethic New Yorkers reading these views were thus twice victimized: on the one hand required to subsidize hundreds of programs designed to improve the living standards of the poor, and on the other accused of neglecting these same persons who were thus conditioned to loot the night the lights went out. Self-appointed spokesmen writing in the New York Times mercilessly reminded taxpayers that the programs of the 70′s were failing; minority youth still neglected; rewarding jobs not available to ghetto victims; urban poor not keeping up with inflation; etc.

But such observations ignored the fact that middle-class residential areas, containing newly-created pockets of decent housing, were also victimized. The darkened streets and muted electronic safeguards did not inspire to lawlessness only the dwellers in the worst slums. In Brooklyn, for example, some idle poor residing comfortably under the rent-subsidy auspices took advantage of their new proximity to Flatbush Avenue to rip off small businesses there. The extent of the robberies was accelerated when aggressive looters who had initiated the break-ins were joined by spectators unable to resist an opportunity to beat the high cost of inflation.

Martha S. Cherkis
Brooklyn, New York

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Midge Decter writes:

Although at rather different levels of asperity, the same two points are raised by Samuel Rabinove and John Slawson. One, there is a great deal of cynicism and corruption in the higher reaches of society; why not blame these, rather than prevailing liberal attitudes, for creating the atmosphere in which last summer’s looting was bred? Two, given my assertion that large numbers of idle ghetto youth are in fact not interested in finding gainful employment, how can I account for the thousands who turned up for the summer-job program and had to be turned away?

In answer to the first, the argument from general corruption is, of course, precisely the sort of liberal “explanation” to which I was alluding. Surely neither Mr. Rabinove nor Dr. Slawson would advance such an argument to explain criminal behavior, say, in the New York City Police Department—not to mention the White House. Why, then, do they find it relevant in thinking about black youths smashing store windows in the darkness? I would prefer not to belabor the obvious by spelling out the answer.

On the second point—not unrelated to the first—what makes Mr. Rabinove and Dr. Slawson assume that the black kids who lined up for summer jobs were among the looters? What we do know about those arrested for looting was that an astonishing number of them were employed, many at jobs with decent pay, so that the very idea of the looting as a response to unemployment was, I am afraid, very early exposed as a “liberal excuse” and little more. The point I was trying to make about all those young men hanging out on street corners, Dr. Slawson, is that they are not some kind of collective blob of soft clay to be molded to the contours of social theory but human beings leading describable lives—as anyone who has ever troubled to look at them knows—and one does human beings neither kindness nor honor to deny those lives their moral, and thus also possibly immoral, dimension (the competition with jobs comes not only from welfare but from crime, and that is something that cannot be dealt with “in Washington,” only in “the hearts and minds” of all of us).

Finally, a word about that summer-job program and the 20,000 applicants for it—because here once again there is a danger of our being choked on cant. Those summer jobs, as even so sympathetic and well-credentialed a liberal as Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman angrily announced after investigating the program, do not provide real or serious employment, but have become little more than a means of bribing kids to stay off the streets, with virtually nothing demanded of them in the way of either performance or attendance. They are, in short, plums, and everyone who lines up for them is not necessarily to be accounted earnest in the pursuit of work. I am sorry to put the matter so bluntly, but one is occasionally driven to brutal speech by the insistent innocence of one’s interlocutors. Moreover, I suggest that Dr. Slawson might ask just about any white youngster in the city of New York why he saw only black faces in that newsphoto: it is nearly impossible to get one of those jobs if you are white unless you have high and at least slightly corrupt connections. What every kid in a city knows is something its leading social critics ought to know as well.

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