This past Wednesday, President Trump announced his support for a bipartisan prison reform bill, called the FIRST Step Act. I commend this positive move from the government side. However, prison reform alone is unlikely to substantially address high crime rate issue in inner-city minority communities. To fundamentally address this issue, we need to conduct an honest and open-minded soul searching: Why, after billions of dollars in investment, does America still fail to address the persistent high crime rate in our inner-cities? What went wrong with America’s crime control approach?
The answer to this challenge may reside in a community typically left out in this conversation: Chinese Americans and their effective crime control experience.
The Chinese American experience is quite relevant here because they were also severely discriminated in American history. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act deprived many of their basic civil rights and the subsequent social injustice exacerbated their economic and social sufferings. In the mid-1960’s, Chinese Americans in San Francisco Chinatown had the lowest median family income (40.7% living less than $4,000 per year). Yet, this did not lead to a high crime rate. In the State of California where numerous Chinese Americans concentrated, on average there were only 8.8 Chinese Americans in prison during 1960s.
What enables Chinese Americans to achieve such an extremely low crime rate is the effective role of family in crime prevention. Guided by Confucian values, Chinese Americans view the family, not the police, as the primary responsible party in crime control. Here are a few good practices:
First, most Chinese American families demand family members not engage in any bad behavior. When my siblings and I were growing up under extreme poverty during China’s Cultural Revolution, my mother taught us to resist any improper temptations because big robbers always started with small stealing. By controlling misbehavior when it is still minor, we can prevent disastrous behavior from developing later down the road.
In addition, Confucius also advocated for the selective choice of friends: to only associate with individuals who exhibited good behavior. This not only protects children from bad influences, but it also isolates people with bad behaviors.
Confucianism also emphasizes strong self-discipline. When I was young, whenever my siblings and I had a dispute with other children, the first thing my parents asked was if we did anything wrong to cause the dispute. They held us to a higher standard than others. Though it may seem unfair, this kind of self-discipline is essential to raise children with outstanding personal character.
By adopting Confucian wisdoms with an active family management approach, most Chinese American families do not have any serious behavioral issues, creating very little need for law enforcement. For the same reason, Confucianism influenced nations with similar living standards such as Japan and Korea also have very low crime rates.
In contrast to Chinese Americans’ proven experience, American society mistakenly puts the police force at the first line of crime control. While many studies have proven that one of the major root causes of high crime rates in America’s inner-city neighborhoods is the breakdown of family and community, insufficient efforts were made to address these issues. Guided by “Broken Window Theory,” America incorrectly puts policemen, not parents to confront misbehaved juveniles in our inner-city neighborhoods. As a result, mistrust, misunderstanding, and sometimes misuse of force inevitably happen.
Worse, the increasing incarceration starting from the 1990s exacerbate this situation. When misbehaved juveniles are put into prisons where they mingle with criminals, their chance for rehabilitation is much smaller than if they were being disciplined by effective parents. Putting more African American adults into jails further broke down their families.
America has been on a wrong path of using the government to substitute family responsibilities. It is time to restore the family as the basic unit of our society and let families take the primary responsibility of crime prevention. To fundamentally improve the safety and well-being of residents in our inner-city communities, we need to invest more on enhancing family capabilities in crime prevention, less on prison cells. This approach will help reduce the violent crime rate, police-suspects encounters, therefore, saving lives and reducing racial tensions.
(Note: This article was originally published by Orlando Sentinel called “Confucius guides Chinese-American parents to keep crime rate low”on November 19, 2018.)