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Beyond the Spin | Homicide economics

Making jobs available is a key to curbing killings.

Actor Will Smith, a native of Philadelphia, has his Party 4 Peace celebrity weekend here to raise money and awareness about violent crime. In Memphis, volunteers from the Temple of Christ Baptist Church repainted the graffiti-defaced garage of an 86-year-old grandmother. V.J. Smith has started a Minneapolis chapter of MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder), which parades the streets, urging black males to sign a pledge abjuring violence.

Across the nation, black males are stepping up to address what is loosely called black-on-black crime. An increasing number of blacks are saying, in the words of some civil rights activists: No one can save us from us, but us.

"When the Catholics had issues, they started Catholic Charities," Smith said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. "When the Lutherans had issues they started Lutheran Social Services. When the blacks had issues, we started riots. So we need to do something different."

Though overly simplistic, the point is unmistakably clear - blacks must take the lead in curbing homicides in their communities, most of which involve an African American killer and an African American victim.

Actually, I dislike the term black-on-black crime for several reasons. First, crime is crime, regardless of the race of perpetrator or victim. Criminals should be defined by their acts, not by their race, which has nothing to do with a propensity to commit crimes.

In 2005, the right-wing New Century Foundation published a report titled "The Color of Crime: Race, Crime and Justice in America." The report cataloged a collection of statistics designed to give the impression that blacks are routinely killing and attacking whites.

According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are seven times more likely to commit homicides than whites. As important, African Americans are six times more likely to be homicide victims.

From 1976 to 2005, according to a report issued last summer by the bureau, 86 percent of all white homicide victims were killed by whites and 94 percent of all black homicide victims were killed by blacks.

A study issued earlier this year by the Washington-based Violence Policy Center found that black homicides in Pennsylvania ranked No. 1 in the nation: 398 during 2004. Of the victims, 348 were male.

The figures on black homicides from that study reveal that differences in age, gender and race are likely to determine whether one becomes a statistic.

The homicide rate for black males 18 to 24 is more than double the rate for black male homicide victims age 25 and older and nearly four times the rate for black males 14 to 17 years old. Among offenders, black males in that same 18-to-24-year-old category are likely to commit a homicide at a rate more than three times that of black males 14 to 17 and five times the rate for black males 25 and older. The focus is on reaching the key 18-to-24 age group.

While V.J. Smith tries to get them to make antiviolence pledges on the streets in Minneapolis, in nearby St. Paul the Rev. Darryl Spence engages black youth in conversation and invites them to lemonade stands. In October, Kenny Gamble and local black leaders asked 10,000 men to patrol streets of Philadelphia.

The success or failure of such programs will be determined by how well public officials understand that crime cannot be viewed strictly through the prism of race.

Two University of Washington social demographers analyzed 1970 and 1990 census data to examine all forms of violent deaths in Chicago - homicide, accidental death and suicide - and determine whether race or economic opportunity was the key predictor.

"Both black and non-black communities show generally similar responses to endemic joblessness in terms of mortality," Gunnar Almgren, lead author of the study, said. "Race is not an explanation for differences in violent death rates. It's about jobs. If you isolate any group from jobs, it is going to have negative effects, and inner-city black-community levels of joblessness are higher than any other group."

It's good that crime is being addressed more forthrightly by blacks themselves. But that development cannot succeed without additional access to jobs.