Photo courtesy Carolyn Park CurrieLeft-wing criminologists are rare, and Elliott Currie is a rarity among rarities. He's a former Yale and UC Berkeley professor, now teaching criminology, law and society at UC Irvine. He serves as an adviser to the progressive National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). (The group's frankly lefty mission reflects Currie's own: “The oldest criminal justice research organization in America, NCCD promotes effective, humane, fair and economically sound solutions to family, community and justice problems.”) He's also been a courageous, intelligent leader in the attack on 25 years of failed hard-line crime fighting—from Reagan and Bush through Clinton and George W.
His books, especially Reckoning:Drugs,theCities,andtheAmericanFuture(1993) and CrimeandPunishmentinAmerica(1998), meticulously document the case against government snooping, cuffing, caging and lethal injecting. Read Currie, and you'll conclude that America's outsized drug, violence and crime problems ebb wherever social-justice reforms and humane rehabilitation replace free-market fundamentalism, nightsticks and lockdowns.
Thus begins our tragedy.
Just as Currie's statistical bulldozing and relentless logic once marked the best of progressive advocacy, the baseless emotional claptrap of his newest book, TheRoadtoWhatever:Middle-ClassCultureandtheCrisisofAdolescence(2005), exposes the shambles of American liberalism today. RoadtoWhateverstarts off well enough, with an indictment of post-Reagan America's “new Darwinism” and, where kids are concerned, its “culture of negligence and exclusion.” Then Currie displays a terrible negligence of his own, conjuring from nothing a crisis of “widespread alienation, desperation and violence” among middle-class, white suburban teens.
Currie claims “statistics back up” his assertion—and then cites few. He just feels “white youth are now the group at highestrisk”—the emphasis is his—”of some of the most troublesome and deadly of adolescent ills.”
The facts show he's dead wrong. The FBI, California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, National and California Center for Health Statistics and other standard crime and health reports show California's poorest youths endure much higher levels of arrest and violence—especially involving guns—than the state's richest kids. For example, in the past four years, California's half-million poorest black and Latino youths suffered 362 gunshot deaths and murder arrests; its richest half-million white teens just 28.
But what's more powerful is this simple fact: rich or poor, white, brown, black or whatever, adolescents have never been safer or healthier—less self-destructive, less criminal, less violent and less addicted—than they are today.
OC's white kids—precisely the suburban youth Currie says are most at risk—recorded astonishing health and safety improvements over the past three decades. Rates of violent crime arrests fell 25 percent, felonies are down 65 percent, murders down 60 percent, suicides down 50 percent, gun deaths down 60 percent, violent deaths down 50 percent and drug overdoses down 80 percent. Take 2003, the most recent year for which records are available: Among 150,000 white teenagers in this giant county, just one was arrested for murder, two committed suicide, one died from a drug overdose, and one from guns. That number is terrible for the five victims and their families. But it's also among the safest, lowest-crime years for white teens ever recorded, one that would make Sweden proud.
State and national trends are about the same. Today, record numbers of white youths are graduating from high school, enrolling in college, volunteering for community work and reporting high self-esteem. Only 3 percent of high school seniors told the latest Monitoring the Future survey they were “very dissatisfied” with themselves. Record low numbers report delinquency, violent victimization and injury in or outside school.
So how did Currie get from these upbeat numbers to his panicky report that this generation of white kids is afflicted with “widespread alienation, desperation, and violence”? By narrowing his anecdotal evidence to just a few kids chosen precisely because they're troubled. It's a bit like leaping from serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz to Jews as particularly murderous, from Andrea Yates to an epidemic of suburban moms drowning their young in the bathrooms of upscale tract homes.
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Every myth has its hero, and Currie's has baby boomers—as typified primarily by the author himself. “I never saw any heroin during my entire adolescence, nor, as far as I know, did any of my friends,” Currie reminisces. “We had never heard of crystal methamphetamine.” But today, he says, “for adolescents in virtually every community in the United States the drug scene has changed so dramatically that it is as if we were talking about another planet . . . Nearly every drug you can think of is available to [teens] with disturbing ease . . . There are an extraordinary number of opportunities for American adolescents to do something seriously risky—and, at least for the mainstream, far more than there used to be.”
It's a comforting memory, but it doesn't match the facts. In 2003, the latest year reported, the white suburban teens stigmatized in Whatevershowed huge declines in serious drug abuse over the past 30 years. In 1970, four times more white California teenagers died from drugs, including 10 times more from heroin.
When Currie does deal with the larger facts of drug use, he distorts them. He says federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) figures for drug-related hospital emergency cases show “adolescent drug abuse took a sharp upward turn in the 1990s, and the rise was sharpest for some of the drugs white and middle-class youth were most likely to abuse.”
In fact, the DAWN numbers show the opposite: teens were the only group that didn't show increased drug abuse during the 1990s, as measured either in hospital treatments or deaths. In contrast, every adult age group suffered dramatic spikes in drug abuse (especially of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and alcohol mixed with drugs). The biggest jump (230 percent) and worst abuse rates were among Americans aged 35 to 54—Currie's own innocent generation.
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Currie's motive is clear: it's time to resurrect the moral vision of the 1960s.
Kids today, he suggests, are the unfortunate alien spawn of years of neoconservative politics. Forged by Reaganomics and dot-com bubbles, raised in sterile suburbs by parents too busy to parent, these kids turned inward—and found nothing. If only they could go back in time: the generations of the 1950s and '60s were safer, Currie writes, because they were nurtured by a “moral vision that prevailed in much of middle-class America” when “basic notions of collective responsibility” and the “generous vision and the social policies that flowed from it” prevailed.
But Currie's ode to '60s liberalism crumbles under closer scrutiny. If there ever was a white-youth crisis in America, it came in the late 1960s and early '70s. The numbers show that's when violent deaths, suicides and self-destructiveness, random violence, arrests, drug overdoses, and sexually transmitted infections peaked. If you want anecdotes of alienated, murderous, drug-wasted middle-class white kids to define the times, ponder the Manson Family.
But such facts are uncomfortable for a generation that might prefer to remember Woodstock rather than Altamont, the Freedom Riders rather than the Hells Angels. The kids who grew up in the 1960s were dangerous to themselves and others—blame their Greatest Generation parents if you must, but baby boomers continue to produce staggering rates of addiction, depression, suicide, crime and family chaos that dwarf those of their teenaged children. Among the over-35 set, felony arrests have tripled, violence arrests quadrupled, hard-drug overdose deaths quintupled. Today's middle-aged Orange Countians are two to three times more criminal and drug-abusing than their counterparts 30 years ago. Compared with their kids, white people in their 40s are 2.5 times more at risk of violent death (twice as likely to die by guns, specifically), three times more suicidal, eight times more likely to die from illicit-drug abuse, and—shockingly—now record higher violence and felony arrest rates than their kids.
Faced with such facts, you might expect Currie to urge radical intervention to save white middle-class parents. But he never faces them. Instead, he takes refuge in the myth of Woodstock. Today's parents are responsible only for milder sins, he says. “Frazzled and frightened,” “overworked” and “pinched,” they suffer from an “individualistic” American culture that abandons families while imposing harsh edicts on child raising.
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RoadtoWhateverjoins Mary Bray Pipher's RevivingOphelia, Meredith Maran's Dirty:ASearchforAnswersInsideAmerica'sTeenageDrugEpidemicand a growing catalog of books that are less about teens than the jumbled anxieties of a frightened older generation unable to adapt to change. What's needed are thoughtful visionaries to point out this hopeful sign: OC's multicultural teens—42 percent Latino; 39 percent white; 19 percent Asian, black and “other”—are safer and healthier than the kids who lived here in the 1970s, when seven in eight OC teens were Anglo and drug abuse, death and crime rates were far higher.
But numbers are a precarious thing. Complicated, they're often ignored; uncomfortable, they're often dismissed in favor of stories put out by aging, anxious and powerful adults. If multiracial Orange County and California have a future, the progressives have to cut out their groundless teen-terror panics. Now.
ELLIOTT CURRIE'S THE ROAD TO WHATEVER: MIDDLE-CLASS CULTURE AND THE CRISIS OF ADOLESCENCE (METROPOLITAN BOOKS, HENRY HOLT N CO.), 2005.