University of Delaware Professor Yasser Payne’s Efforts to Decrease Wilmington’s Crime Rate
Growing up running the streets of Harlem, Payne’s seen more than his share of violence—and he believes he has a way to end it. Will it change a troubled Wilmington?
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In other words, Payne has shed his old skin.
“We all begin like that,” Payne says. “It’s moral for us. ‘It’s OK to sell drugs. It’s OK to beat people up.’ In that context, it’s understandable. That socialization is intergenerational, and it’s sown deep into our bones. It’s not good, but it’s normal. I tried to be honorable in that life. I have a much more appropriate moral code now. For me now, I’d rather die than hurt someone else.”
His old friend Gaddy, a member of his rap group, says Payne had to get a Ph.D. to prove his worth, and for another reason. “He was going to be right, and if he wasn’t, he was going to figure out what to do to be right.”
Elijah Anderson of Yale University is one of the foremost black scholars in the country, a street ethnographer who wrote the seminal “The Code of the Streets” in the early 1990s. Based on Anderson’s study of poor black communities in Philadelphia, the work explains the nuanced relations between “decent” African-American families and those involved in criminal activities. The book helped Payne understand, in academic terms, what he knew intuitively from experience.
“Young men like Yasser bring something special to their work,” Anderson says. “There’s the drive and the motivation, but he also has a peculiar understanding of the issue.”
That Payne should end up here could be a bit of kismet, given our state’s embarrassing history of race relations. Delaware was the last state to free its slaves. In 1968, it suffered the longest military occupation of a North American city, in Wilmington, after years of frustration over lack of housing and employment opportunity erupted in race riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And it has tolerated 35 years of busing to end the de facto racial, socioeconomic segregation and resulting educational inequities of New Castle County schools. Those facts jibe perfectly with Payne’s interest in black history—including the long history of black crime—education and the causes of violence. Delaware was also close enough to home that he could visit his family often. “Your community is everything,” he says. “I could never leave my people.”
That Payne landed at the University of Delaware, with a black faculty of about 3 percent and an undergraduate black student population that hovers around 5 percent, is less kismet, more of a strategic move on the administration’s part.
Payne was a fellow of the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program. James M. Jones, recent past chairman of UD’s Black American Studies department, was the longtime director of that program, so he was well-acquainted with Payne’s record of publication when he interviewed Payne for his job. That record indicated Payne would meet the rigorous research demands of the academy, but Payne brought something more: experience with participatory action research. Payne’s academic interests, with his research methodology and his activism, was seen as a way to build a bridge with the local black community, which held a dim view of the University of Delaware, Jones says.