Off the Cuff: October 2012

America doesn't have the guts to deal with the widespread trauma stemming from the self-destructive behavior in our cities' worst neighborhoods.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t have the guts to deal with America’s most pressing problems. And when we refuse to address what’s really going on—when we avoid problems because they’re too painful to face, or maybe too dangerous—they only fester and grow and can remain forever unsolved.

Welcome to inner-city America. The real nature of this crisis is all around us, evident in so many ways. Consider, for example, the recent Chicago teachers’ strike. The toughest sticking point in the negotiations was teacher accountability. Now, I’ve long been in favor of holding our public-school teachers’ feet to the fire; we should have the power to readily fire bad ones and reward good ones. But during negotiations, I actually felt sympathy for Chicago’s teachers, because they clearly feel squeezed by untenable demands. During talks, the union released a statement opposing teacher evaluations that included this:

There are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests, such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues.

That was a polite way of saying the teachers don’t feel they should be held accountable for teaching children who are so badly damaged, they’ve become unteachable. A new understanding of just why that is—why so many inner-city children fail school and descend into self-destruction—came to light in a heart-wrenching article by Steve Volk last month in Philadelphia magazine. Researchers at Drexel University have found that living in violent neighborhoods may be causing alarming rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is usually associated with horrific war experiences. Living in these areas can actually damage the brain, the researchers have discovered, producing people who are emotionally numb, indifferent to the value of life and likely to lash out.

Many people—including me—have long been critical of the self-destructive behavior in our worst neighborhoods. But Volk cited the perspective of Drexel professor Sandra Bloom: “People will ask, ‘Where’s their common sense?’ And that’s a good question. People should ask it. And they should listen to the answer. Because what you and I consider common sense, the ability to plan for the future, to put problems in perspective and respond accordingly—these are some of the functions trauma destroys. And what you get from this is a breakdown of civil society and all its institutions: families, schools, children, everything.”

This, of course, is what has been happening in many of our neighborhoods. There is only trauma, and nothing productive going on. Recently, the Center City District came up with an astounding calculation: For every acre in Center City, there are 129 jobs. As for the rest of the city, that number is four; there are only four jobs per acre in Philadelphia outside of downtown! (I keep thinking Fort Apache, the Bronx.) Hence the terrible traffic jam heading west on the Schuylkill every morning: Almost 200,000 Philadelphians commute to the suburbs for work. Is it any wonder the black middle class is abandoning the city? I don’t know how the signals could be any clearer. So why isn’t the state of our inner cities deemed a national crisis, especially considering the children who live there?

Big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. Drexel’s Bloom isn’t afraid to properly frame the problem: “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.” Is that craziness? I don’t think so. I believe the insanity lies in ignoring this terrible reality in our inner cities. No one has ready solutions. But step one has to be facing the truth about what is really going on.