To stop the growth of violence, understand its roots

One of Marcus Garvey’s more famous quotes is, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture… is like a tree without roots.” While these words are most often deployed to stir ethnic pride, primarily amongst the Black Diaspora, I am using them to suggest that without a clear awareness of acts of violence in the past, we discount our ability to eradicate a lot of violence in the present.

It is hard to remedy social disease without first having a proper diagnosis and understanding of the origins of what ails us. Garvey’s mantra offers an intriguing framework for thinking about the barbaric nature of youth violence in Chicago over the past three years. This year seems to have marked an apex for this barbarism. This is no more evident than with the recent case of Derrion Albert, a 16 year old honors student at Fenger High School, who was beat to death by his peers outside a youth center on the far Southside of Chicago.

Albert’s case has rightly become something of a cause célèbre regarding the issue of youth violence in Chicago to the extent that President Obama is sending Attorney General, Eric Holder and Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to Chicago to get a first hand look at this tragedy.


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Months prior to Albert’s slaying, another, albeit far less publicized, case was equally if not more barbaric in nature. Fifteen-year-old Alex Arellano was beaten with baseball bats, shot, lit on fire, and then burned to death by a group of his peers in a community on Chicago’s southwest side, after he refused to declare his allegiance to a local gang. In both cases, the victims’ peers declared that neither Albert or Arellano were gangsters but merely kids caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Because the Albert and Arellano cases are the tip of the iceberg regarding youth violence in Chicago, this begs the questions: What is so wrong with so many Chicago neighborhoods at this moment in time? Why the bloodshed? When viewed comparatively, Albert’s and Arellano’s deaths also call attention to two social facts which often go unmentioned or are viewed uncritically in our analyses of this barbarism.

The first fact is that white, Asian and Arab kids are not beating, knifing, shooting, or even burning one another to death. The second fact is that it is not only black kids doing this to one another but also Latino kids, which is often overlooked due to the ways in which Latino lives and issues seem to customarily occupy a space outside of our political imaginaries in the U.S. Much of this has to do with the fact that many Latinos bear the stigma of being called immigrant newcomers to the U.S., when in fact most of them have ancestral ties to this land that predates European arrival and certainly existed prior to the U.S. becoming a nation state. The lack of focus on Latino youth seems also to be due to the fact that we often discuss social issues pertaining to racial groups in black vs. white terms alone.

Beyond those two corrective qualifiers, one of our most essential tasks as concerned citizens, teachers, parents, and neighbors, is to interrogate what kind of roots (to revisit Garvey’s metaphor), are at play in structuring the barbaric acts of black and Latino youth.

To facilitate a critical dialogue on this matter, I will claim that we have two different kinds of metaphoric roots that we can choose to examine. Our first option would be to look at black and Latino communities and families and ask what is it that influences them to destroy one another so routinely, so casually, and, even so ritualistically? This query would grow in significance if one also considers that blacks and Latinos are also aggrieved by the highest homicide rates amongst adults in the U.S., some of the highest rates of domestic violence, in addition to extremely high rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Those all seem like acts of self-destruction.

However, to answer the aforementioned question would require some sort of biological logic, one that suggests that there is something wrong with the very chemistry of black and Latino bodies, a deficiency that causes them to behave in bestial ways towards one another or that causes them to love and/or nurture their kids, love one another, or even love themselves far less than do members of other racial groups. By this point, I hope that most readers will see the ridiculous nature of this approach and logic. There is simply no DNA evidence to support that case.

Another option would be to excavate and illuminate social patterns, influential discourses, institutional realities, and other structurally significant conditions from our past. The logic in this strategy would be that the recent barbarism of black and Latino youth violence, might be a reflection of how access to rights, resources, and representation may have been presented to these two afflicted groups over time, that there is a deeper institutional history that we can learn from or that the behaviors of blacks and Latinos have been conditioned by a culture that has often targeted them for systemic violence and then justifies that same violence as a necessary modality of nation building and a defining characteristic of national identity.

It is arguable, for example, that what has actually transpired in U.S. history is grandly incongruent with the principles that this nation has defined itself by and that many of our contemporary social ills are a product of that incongruency. One can make the case that the U.S. is a nation born from — and that has been strongly characterized by — violence against people of color. It can be contended that we became racially and ethnically plural through acts of systemic and mass violence and not, as our mythology purports, through our embracing of the huddled masses of the world and an unquenchable desire for diversity. On the contrary, the entry point of non-white peoples to the nation was characterized by acts of systemic violence that were enacted and legitimated by state agents and institutions with the consent of most white citizens. Native Americans and Chicanos were conquered and/or colonized. Blacks were kidnapped and enslaved. Asian Americans and Latinos faced war, imperialism, and colonization in their home countries that thrust them towards brutal labor exploitation in the U.S.

These historical beginnings set the stage for subsequent moments of violence that have shaped the histories of every group of color in the U.S. over time. In recent decades, some say that this legacy of violence has been sustained through various conditions including a prominent rash of police brutality and a policy of mass incarceration that Human Rights Watch has called “one of the most serious, enduring and divisive human rights violations in the United States.” It is perhaps no wonder then that upon being criticized for advocating violence as a means of anti-racism, the activist formerly known as H. Rap Brown famously commented, “Violence was as American as cherry pie.” By that he meant that it was a defining element of how politics are produced and engaged in the U.S.

Some historians seem to agree. Richard Slotkin, Michael Rogin and others have traced how the routine practice and mythologization of violence via American popular culture suggests that our national narrative and character is often one that as Slotkin claims is, “regenerated through violence” and that such violence is often legitimated through the alchemy of racial discourse. In Slotkin’s examples, it is a violence practiced, most often, towards societies that we somehow consider to be racially different than ours and this is despite the fact that we, as Americans, are so racially different ourselves.

While tracing the ways that the practice and glorification of violence seems to have been woven into the very social fabric of our nation seems to make more sense to me than trying to peruse the DNA of black and Latino bodies for clues as to why they self-destruct, I actually think that the issue of black and Latino youth violence stems from a deeper and/or more complex root.

To excavate that root, perhaps we can borrow from the scholar and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon of Martinique who contends that those who have been on the wrong end of systemic violence in colonial settings, tend to internalize that violence and falsely consider it to be a method of social empowerment. He deemed this condition as “epidermalization,” a process through which the oppressed psychologically normalize oppression as a method of survival, yet also in a way that ultimately contributes towards their oppression. It is for this reason that one can find some of the highest rates of self-destruction within communities that are also characterized by some of the most profound religious devotion.

The profound levels of self-destructive behavior, concurrent with profound levels of faith in a higher power that characterize both black and Latino communities, seem to be far more a sign of despair wrought by structural circumstances than they are signs of some primordial characteristics evidenced, most readily, via phenotype. It is often puzzling to see that people of color in the U.S. often create the most hellish of circumstances around them while also maintaining some of the highest hopes for salvation in the afterlife. While those behaviors sharply contrast, they are also related in ways that seem to signify heightened states of despair and hopelessness with the lives and life chances with which are currently faced.

A nation as abundantly resourceful as ours, ideally should not have such desperation amongst its citizenry. While I both agree and am happy to preach that we are all ultimately responsible for our own actions and the well being of our loved ones, I am also frustrated by our inability to diagnose some of our society’s most sickening ills via a more critical historical perspective. When our own flaws and contradictions are so easily evident to persons outside of our nation, why are we often so blinded to them?

Regardless of whether it involves funds from Olympic games, lottery earnings, the charity of billionaires, or a comprehensive revamping of our nation’s economic priorities, we need to invest in healing the hearts and brightening the future of our youth of color in a way that is as persistent and stable as has been the barrage of obstacles that we’ve placed in front of them. History suggests to us that not only have we placed obstacles in front of them, we have also asked them to leap over those obstacles while keeping pace with other runners who have never really been required to leap over anything.

And then, when our youth of color fail to finish, much less win, the race, we tell them to train harder or claim that they are, perhaps, just genetically slow. In the face of such challenges, it makes some sense that so many youth choose to not even enter that race and instead, create their own kinds of competition within which they feel they have a better chance of feeling like victors, even if only for a moment and even if such victory robs another of his life or health and lands one in prison.

To be sure, I am not justifying gang violence by any means. I am merely trying to elucidate some of the psychosocial circumstances that might birth it. For those that say that the best cure for Chicago or any other city’s youth violence is more policing and more jails, the fact that the number of people currently locked up in U.S. jails and prisons rivals the entire inmate populations of both China or India, suggests to us that such a strategy does not work. We have record levels of youth violence concurrent with record rates of incarceration.

When any individual in any social setting lacks feasible and constructive means for self-empowerment in their social world, violence towards ones peers or even towards persons weaker than oneself offers a cheap and easy release from the humiliation of being powerless. As someone who has witnessed friends and family members killed or maimed by gang violence, whose own childhood took place amidst some of the nation’s highest black-on-black and Latino-on-Latino murder rates, who bears the physical and emotional scars of that violence, who worked avidly as a grass roots activist to combat these conditions in the place that I once called home, and who now analyzes this condition as a scholar at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, I can say with confidence that from every angle and with every tool I’ve examined this, conditions such as youth violence are really cries for help from disadvantaged communities.

As this may apply to Chicago, the same could be said for Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, or Houston. When we assume that it is a condition stemming from the innate desires of our youths we are mistaken. When we assume that youth culture is laden with images and messages that youth comprehensively digest uncritically, we are mistaken. When we assume that black and Latino parents love their children less than those of other groups do, we are mistaken. If we believe that 400 or so years of explicit racial discrimination towards non-white groups can be completely wiped out by a mere 40 years of Civil Rights legislation, we are mistaken.

Chicago’s dilemma seems unique but it is a common trait of nearly every city where one can trace a history of structural and often violent neglect. There seems to be a clear connection between that history and the current problem. That connection is not the only logic, but is a vitally important logic to recognize. Youth violence seems to be a social problem that we’ve created as a society and that we owe an investment to try to remedy if we do indeed consider ourselves to be a nation bonded together by some form of moral conviction akin to the “golden rule” of Judeo-Christian lore.

My own personal investment in our nation is not to conserve it for what it is or what I or we already imagine it to be. It is, by contrast, an investment in the idea that we can always seek new ways of seeing, knowing, and structuring our communities so that they are more attune to promise of egalitarianism. We can always do and be better.

The remedy for black and Latino youth violence will not come overnight, will not stem from any one sound bite, elected official, press conference, donation, piece of legislation, activist leader or act of protest. It might have to start in a collective investment in historical facts, the humility of collective honesty, and a collective agreement that, as another overused yet always applicable proverb suggests, it does indeed “take a village to raise a child.”