Moral Decay v. Environment

I grew up in an upper-class environment: everyone was the 4 or 5 percent, everyone was white except for one kid of each ethnicity (their dads were immigrant doctors), everyone’s parents were Republicans, almost everyone had two parents, good nutrition, solid schooling and pro-education home environments, etc. And while teens in my school wrecked cars and went to coke rehab (it was the ’80s), nobody committed violent felonies—though many of their parents probably participated in white-collar crime.

After coming of age, I lived in some really, really dire neighborhoods, where street crime was a regular event. And I always thought back to my peers in high school, whose parents all would have said something like “those people are poor because they can’t govern themselves”. And there was certainly no shortage of poor impulse control among the inhabitants of those neighborhoods.

But the reality of the relationship between poverty and crime is much more complex. Let’s take as a very illustrative example the story of David Mack Collins, a 22yo father of two, who died ten days ago in the sort of crime so stupid that at first blush it makes for terrible crime fiction:

Athens-Clarke police said Collins and his buddy, 23-year-old Anthony Gray Coleman Jr., were both shot by a man whom they had set up for an armed robbery on the pretext of selling him drugs… Collins’s life ended in a way similar to that of many other local teens and young men who came before him.

Nobody I grew up with would do something this dumb, because they were raised in households that taught that (blue-collar) crime didn’t pay, and because they had other options in life. But Collins didn’t have that kind of support network:

Each sibling had a different father, and David Collins didn’t know who his was. Because their mother was a drug addict, their grandmother in Monroe was given custody of the siblings, Betty Collins said.

In spite of such circumstances, Collins tried to live a normal life.

“My brother grew up in the church (and) sang in the church choir,” Collins said. “He wasn’t made for the streets because he had a different kind of heart. He just ran into it.”

According to Collins, things started going downhill when her brother had a girlfriend in high school who introduced him to alcohol. He got in trouble when found at school with some liquor the girl had brought him.

Now I knew tons of kids who went to coke rehab in high school (again, it was the ’80s). But none of them ever got expelled, or even put into the legal system, because after all they were good kids from good families. But Collins was a kid with no dad and a drug-addict mom, and even if he’d had even one parent, he was still a ghetto black kid, and therefore subject to the strictest possible punishment for infractions that would get a white kid a talking-to.

Even so, Collins tried to get his life together. I won’t quote the rest of the story, which is by Athens reporter Joe Johnson, a guy whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Read it; it’s worth your time and attention. Long story short, Collins can’t find work, but wants to support his family, so getting into street crime was pretty much his ONLY option. And this is where my former peers would stop understanding.

This is what crime fiction is really all about; not the what, but the WHY. Johnson does a great job of opening up to us the series of events that led to Collins taking a bullet, and helps us understand how we can see this as just as much environment as moral decay.


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