Given the city council’s recent actions aimed at shoring up the city’s public image, I wish to revisit and confront once again two major myths or half-truths about which I have written on these pages during the last decade. Both half-truths are vitally interconnected and mutually reinforcing, and each distorts that image.
The first has to do with depictions of our city as a commercial and economic wasteland about to go the way of the now-extinct dodo bird. In this view, we are part of a dying Delta agricultural economy and will inevitably shrink into post-urban oblivion and the swamps that surround us. It is said that we lack a vibrant flow of commerce, have few of the well-paying jobs needed to sustain our populace, and have an untrained and unprepared labor force, which makes it unlikely that we can attract those needed jobs. These are said to result in a population drain as residents steadily flee.
While there is obviously truth in each of these depictions, ours is hardly a city on the verge of extinction. A drive around the city on any given day reveals a robust flow of commerce, a smaller but still stable and varied array of employers, and a site that attracts workers and shoppers from the smaller towns surrounding us, and tourists and conventioneers as well. Our two hometown banks have expanded beyond the city and state, and along with branches of other national and regional banks make us the banking center of southeast Arkansas. We have always served this regional role but now do so in a diversified economy not tied to agriculture alone. Not bad for an economically moribund city.
Without these and other positive attributes, Walgreen’s, a company that assuredly does its scouting homework, would not have chosen to invest in us. The same can be said of other major retailers and manufacturing industries who continue to do business here. Hopefully they will also prove attractive to those considering a move here.
The second and more troubling misperception has to do with our image as “Crime Bluff.” We have a very real crime problem. On the other hand, much of what is said about that problem and our crime rate in comparison to other Arkansas and U.S. cities makes us look like Baghdad during the Iraq War or Boston during the peak of Mafia gang wars. Those we are not. Violence, thievery and other crimes abound here, but we do ourselves a disservice by painting our city’s crime rate as something that is far outside of the ordinary. To view our city as an aberration also alters our views of what can and should be done to address the crime problem.
For example, some of the ways in which we in Pine Bluff and the nation as a whole commonly talk about and measure crime rates, including homicide, lead to an ignoring of a critical point. This is the fact that a given city’s crime rate is primarily a reflection of the extent of poverty within it. Quite apart from the number of policemen on the beat, their training and vigilance or the number of citizens involved in neighborhood watch groups, economic inequality drives crime rates. It is not that policing, community mobilization and other responses do not matter at all; but policing is not what makes Beverly Hills a safer place to live in California than Compton or Watts.
In this regard, it is widely noted that our city’s homicide rate (per 100,000) citizens) exceeds the national average and those of many of the nation’s biggest cities. That is then used to make us seem like a small town gangland. But one of the reasons why Pine Bluff’s rate exceeds that of such big cities as Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington, D.C. is simply due to the fact that their rates are derived from a denominator population base that has very large numbers of middle class and rich folk along with their poor folk. So their rates average out much lower than Pine Bluff’s, a city’s where the poor make up a much larger share of the total.
Pine Bluff’s rate is more like rates found in other poor, jobs-deprived, mostly minority cities such as Flint, Michigan, New Orleans, St. Louis, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Wilmington, Delaware. The latter recently requested help from the Centers for Disease Control’s violence prevention unit to help quell its high homicide rates among its youths.
Regardless of the city size or racial/ethnic composition, homicides are concentrated in poor neighborhoods. And contrary to what composite statistics appear to tell us, the rates of killing found in the biggest cities are much higher than those found in Pine Bluff. Many economically distressed big city neighborhoods, comparable in size to Pine Bluff, have homicide rates much, much above ours.
For instance, some neighborhoods located within Chicago’s civic wards (roughly 50,000 residents), and often entire wards themselves, have rates twice and more the rates found in Pine Bluff. And while not as high as in cities, homicide rates much above the national average are found in rural areas populated by low income whites, Latinos and American Indians.
That said, we must watch the company we keep. These are not the kinds of “lesser-than/ more-than” comparisons we, as a city, should become comfortable with. We can and must do more to reduce the senseless bloodletting among the city’s young males. Yet, to use our homicide statistics to make Pine Bluff a brutal, violent “outlier” within the state of Arkansas or the nation does not serve us well and is based on distortions of easily documented social facts to the contrary.
We must vigorously challenge the view that the city’s economy is headed toward extinction. The Commercial itself might do more to dispel distortions of our crime rates in comparison to other cities and of the robustness of our local economy. We remain a vital gateway to a Delta that lives on with enormous economic potential.
City council initiatives aimed at improving our public image will not change the fact that when it comes to our role as protectors of that image, we Pine Bluffians are often our own worst enemy. While many of the distortions and half-truths about which I have written come from outsiders, much too often they come from us residents. And we alone have the power to change that.
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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.