The word “crisis” has perhaps become the most overused terms in the American vernacular. The public has spent most of the last two years grappling with hydra-headed crises, mostly economic in nature (financial, housing, unemployment, etc) and widespread in their impact. Yet the term has become almost too glib when discussing the smoldering flashpoint of black on black violence — particularly involving youth — which has smoldered for years, and defies easy categorization.
A wave of recent violence has brought new attention to a very old and intractable problem in black communities across the country. Among the latest cases is Georgia teenager Bobby Tillman, who was stomped, kicked and punched to death by four young men, for no apparent reason; and a 5-year-old boy caught in the crossfire of a suspected gang feud. And who can forget last year’s searing case of Derrion Albert, a Chicago honors student stomped to death by a group of his peers?
WATCH COVERAGE OF THE DEATH OF BOBBY TILLMAN:
Economists and sociologists of all persuasions mostly agree that widespread joblessness and lack of educational and economic opportunities are at least partly to blame for gut-wrenching urban violence. The colorful aphorism about the devil finding work for idle hands springs readily to mind when one sees these staggering statistics: black males between the ages of 16 and 19 suffer from an unemployment rate of 50 percent. Meanwhile, overall black unemployment is projected to hit a 25-year high this year.
That said, black-on-black crime statistics have been fairly bleak even during economic expansions. A 2007 Center for Disease Control report put its finger directly on the problem when it identified homicide as the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15-34, accounting for 48 percent of all premature deaths.
As a result, a deeper exploration is needed to put the latest spasms of urban violence in the appropriate context.
Critics often point to a number of influences that exert a gravitational pull on black youth, chief among them being music that glamorizes dysfunctional behavior, and violent media desensitize kids to the concept of murder. Valid criticisms to be sure, yet they don’t provide a complete explanation. The most salient factor nowadays revolves around a sense that parents have nearly abrogated their responsibility to nurture their kids — outsourcing those functions to various government agencies, schools and other role players. In large measure, they have reduced themselves to bit players in the narrative of their children’s lives.
And the nexus between urban violence and over-aggressive policing tactics cannot be understated. A common refrain from community activists is that overreach by law enforcement agencies often results in instances of police brutality and unfair racial targeting. But many of these same critics are deafeningly silent when it comes to addressing the hard truth: black-on-black crime is much more commonplace than police brutality, often acting as a force multiplier for law enforcement overreach.
Violence in urban areas — perpetrated overwhelmingly by young black men against other young black men — leads to an increased police presence. This raises the probability that officers will abuse their power, or overreact when they patrol urban communities. Evidence suggests that community leaders are becoming more vocal in confronting black youth violence, but far too many remain on the sidelines when they should be forcefully addressing the dysfunctional behavior that is far too commonplace in black communities.
Another brutal irony can be found when scrutinizing the role of civil-rights organizations in drawing attention to the epidemic of youth violence. Over the last year, the NAACP has issued a blizzard of press releases and public statements on a range of issues, yet one searches in vain for a call to action on criminality in black neighborhoods.
Over the last year, the organization’s most noteworthy contribution to public discourse was notoriously misguided feud with the Tea Party movement that alleged its members were motivated primarily by racism. Indeed, both the NAACP and the Urban League have largely devoted themselves to supporting President Obama’s policies, while remaining silent on the near-apocalyptic violence that takes place in black communities on a daily basis.
Urban violence is hardly specific to the United States, as the lack of jobs and education across the globe underscores the strong correlation between socio-economic disenfranchisement and criminal behavior. But the problem is all too intractable within our borders, and can’t be rationalized any longer. Government policy can no longer be seen as the final solution to an issue that is best resolved at the community and individual level.