Rodriguez on Declining Crime

March 11, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight our Monday night essay. Richard Rodriguez with the Pacific News Service considers the declining crime rate.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We gaged a life of the heart with numbers and charts. We let our politicians take credit for the state of our souls. All across America in city after city there has recently been a dramatic decline in violent crime: Mayors, governors, as well as politicians in Washington have rushed forward to take credit. In New York City, for example, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is credited by many for improvements in the police department. Here in California there is the widespread assumption that a declining number of felonies is the result of three strike legislation. Commit three felonies, and you’re in jail for life.

For all the talk you hear about Americans wanting less government in their lives, we seem to assume a crucial impact of government on our moral behavior.

Here in San Francisco in recent years the murder rate has been declining. It stands now at its lowest rate since 1989. The assumption in the morning papers on the evening news seems to be that this good news is a result of changes come down from on high. Did we believe that order is the result of good government? Is order the result of individuals?

A teenager commits a murder. We blame the teenager. On the other hand, we hear that fewer teenagers are murdering each other; we credit the police chief or the governor. The truth is that no one knows exactly why violent crime is decreasing in America. But I keep meeting young people who are yearning for direction in their lives.

They are not turning to politicians but to religion for hope. Here on a street in San Francisco many American would regard as a breeding ground of despair you will find a mosque crowded with the young. At the mosque’s center for self-improvement and community development teenagers learn how to dress, how to present themselves at job interviews, how to use words with care.

Two years ago after the Million Man March in Washington organized by Louis Farrakhan many Americans couldn’t see beyond Minister Farrakhan in judging the event. But every man I’ve spoken to who was at the Million Man March has told me that their presence had nothing to do with Louis Farrakhan.

There they were, hundreds of thousands of lives, single lives, lives entire, men, grandfathers, brothers, fathers, sons, confessing their failures, determining to change. That the Million Man March took place in Washington, D.C. was an irony, of course, for not a single request was made of the White House or the Congress by any of the marchers. You do not find many mayors visiting jails. You do not find many governors walking the streets to hear people talk about their desperate lives.

If you want to hear about the condition of the American soul, you would do better to listen to the missionaries who ring the doorbells and stand on the street corners of America: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam, the Mormons, the missionaries from Victory Outreach. Victory Outreach is an evangelical Protestant group that began along the U.S.-Mexican border working with teenagers who have serious gang and drug problems.

It has spread all over the country, and now its ambitions are international. Last year missionaries from Victory Outreach traveled to London, Amsterdam, and Paris to counsel teenagers. If you want to know about the moral life of America, the state of our soul, you would do well one Sunday to visit the Gospel Church here in Oakland. These young lives will determine the future of America as surely as any mayor or governor or congressman. Listen to them. The joy they are singing is sounding over the city. (people singing)

I’m Richard Rodriguez.