Social Costs of Violence: Fear and Mistrust

The economic costs of violence are endless: direct and indirect medical expenses, lost productivity, public response services (including police, security personnel, and ambulatory services), investment in legislature, criminal justice costs (including courts, corrections, and reduced value of real estate in crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the far-reaching and hard-to-define repercussions on emotional status and mental health. What happens when we look at costs of violence that are not financial, that are not productivity-related, that are not emotional?

In Western society—and particularly in capitalistic nations where policy is highly driven by monetary gain (or in the case of violence, by preventing monetary cost)–there is a push to monetize every experience, every loss. However, how does one quantify the unavoidable costs of fear, misunderstanding, or prejudice that come with equating violence to specific times, places, or races?

A recent quote by the founder of New York City’s the Doe Fund—a very well-respected nonprofit organization in NYC that provides paid transitional work, housing, educational opportunities, counseling, and career training to people with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse–and hopeful Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald underscores some of the latent fear and assumption-making that has led to systematic discrimination of Black males in the minds of society and in criminal detention rates:

“The mass incarceration of African American men may have made us safer, but it leaves us with generation after generation of broken families that are uneducated that have multiple barriers to employment.”

While the main point of Mr. McDonald’s statement clearly intended to hinge on the fact that the disproportionate incarceration of Black males leads to cycles of broken homes, reduced economic viability, and propagates lower rates of education in Black communities than in White communities, his statement underscores an uncomfortable but commonly-held notion that demographics attribute to an increased risk of committing crimes or enacting violence.

His statement, while probably a result of poor word choice, makes the assumption that African American men are inherently a threat and that there is, in some way, a benefit to disproportionately incarcerating Black men–with that benefit being an increased sense of safety to the rest of society. In this same framework of thinking, New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk law was first enacted in 1991 and allowed New York Police Department officials to stop and search anyone who was deemed a threat through visual examination, which led to a 9:1 ratio of Blacks and Hispanics being stopped and frisked as compared to Whites. These laws drew intense ire and controversy for encouraging legal discrimination and prejudicial actions by NYPD before it was finally ruled unconstitutional in January of this year.

From this, we must ask ourselves how such fear, such mistrust, and such misguided response to the media’s representation of who is a threat and who is at risk affects our perceptions and our actions in daily lives and, at a macrosocial level, our criminal justice’s response to the management of crime and threats of crime. Given the knowledge that most reported crimes are crimes that occur within race or ethnic divides and not between races/ethnicities, the “safety” of which Mr. McDonald speaks of is often merely an illusion guided by outside media fear-mongering.

In response to Mr. McDonald’s recent quote, Glenn Martin, a fellow NYC non-profit CEO of the Fortune Society, responded with the following take on the situation:

In fact, the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color has been destructive and counterproductive, with little connection to crime rates. The major cause of prison growth in New York State is our failed war on drugs, and it has disproportionately impacted young men of color, although drug use and drug selling rates are similar across racial lines.  In addition, recent research supports the fact that when you over incarcerate from specific communities, the law of diminishing returns applies and you ultimately experience little to no increase in public safety.”

His comment suggests that our attempts to remedy crime by systematically creating other, less preventable injustices does little to reduce crime and, in fact, may lead to increased crime by necessity. He also challenges the notion of safety and perceptions of how safety can be ensured—or alternatively—not ensured. By incarcerating young males with the potential to be highly valuable members of society, the corrections system implicitly is a cause for social degradation. Lost youth and innocence, the short and long-term costs of broken homes, and increasingly fractured and disvalued communities are true risks to long-term security and safety in America, despite the media’s attempt to glamorize violence while concurrently denouncing the perpetrators as vile and incorrigible.

When shows like Gangland only propagate fears that anyone, anywhere can be a victim of violence at anytime, the challenge is to ask ourselves how much of this threat of violence exists only in our thoughts and minds, in our perceptions and our fears? Through these avenues we continue to perpetrate violence against ourselves and against our fellow man, always mentally stopping-and-frisking those around us that we deem a threat. In these ways, the costs of violence become all too real. What are the costs of violence when every young Black male is assumed to be violent or a hardened criminal? If we had to quantify, how much does each tear in the fabric of society cost us?

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