Monday, November 19, 2007

The Simplistic and Divisive List of Dangerous Cities


For the 14th year in a row, CQ press published its “City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America” , based on the September 24 FBI crime statistics report. Once again, some of the usual suspects, Detroit, Cleveland St Louis and my home “metropolitan” town Birmingham were listed in the top ten. As a result, the rankings have appeared on websites, newspapers and will probably be broadcast on television stations across the country.

The message in the rankings seems to say, that these places are dangerous, so if you go there, be afraid, watch your back, best to stay away if you know what’s good for you.

. But, as a number of critics charge, the “most dangerous” rankings, tend to be simplistic and incomplete. Beyond the irresponsibility of broadcasting shrill messages that fail to detail crucial criminal science and sociological factors in each of these unique places, especially the story behind the poverty that leads some cities to high crime rates, is the fact that the lists actually divide us as a nation, and in a number of ways, that is more dangerous than Downtown Detroit at midnight.

For one, they imply that places like Detroit are hopeless, and that residents live in chaos and fear, that non residents should avoid visiting, and those residents with means should try to leave when economically feasible for greener and more safe pastures, perhaps a nice suburban gated community.

The rankings also play upon the epidemic of fear in America that has, for far too long, included America’s inner cities among its unhealthy symptoms.

We Americans are suckers when it comes to fear. For example, since 9/11, some government officials and politicians have used fear as a method of gathering support around causes and platforms that in the end resulted in serious erosions of some of our most cherished rights and freedoms. Fear has proven that it has the ability to bring certain groups of people together, united in their fright, but, the cost has been ideological and political division unlike any seen since the Vietnam War. Fear in public policy is cheap. It is the bad cream rising to the top, and it takes attention away from solving what are usually very complex problems like the current health of many American cities. It’s certainly easier to paint broad brush strokes of danger, isolation and fear. In truth, dangerous places lists contribute to American fragmentation, further confirming the words of a certain American President who once said, we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.

Besides that, what purpose does a dangerous place list serve? For a person living in Phoenix, Detroit might seem just a bit more scary, thanks to the new rankings. But, for that some person, will they ponder, why or what made Detroit, statistically a high crime town. Will this 14th Annual list, evoke a flurry of political leaders across America to address the nuts and bolts problems that residents of Cleveland or Detroit may face like cultures of poverty, racial segregation, investment money flight? Or does Detroit’s status as number one, simply serve as further confirmation of long held stereotypes that Detroit has held as America’s poster child of urban danger?

And, underlying the confirmation of stereotypes is the role that race plays in images of crime and cities. It's no secret that people of color face the most danger from crime in Urban America. And, as we see in newscasts and other media, the way those stories get told is through sensational details, since it still holds true, if it bleeds it leads. But, once again, that’s simplistic and potentially numbing to viewers and readers, who have yet to see the press confront Washington leaders about urban ills or success stories that deserve greater attention and resources. As “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting” pointed out in a July 1992 article that critiqued the media’s coverage of political candidates speeches regarding race and urban ills, “the press needs to be as interested in the crafting of urban and social policy as they are in fiery speeches”.

While it might be easy to point at places like Detroit or Cleveland as spooky northern cities, they are, in fact, connected to the same greater fabric of the American community as places like Des Moines or Salt Lake City. Perhaps, its time to start taking care of our cities with real innovative solutions that address what led them to this unfortunate list in the first place.

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