Close your eyes. Picture Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. We all have an image in our minds of innocent, white children in a quiet, middle class suburb being suddenly, and horrifically exposed to gun violence. Now close your eyes again. Picture the same scene, but this time the children are black. What do you imagine our national reaction would be to this tragedy?
Now close your eyes again and picture 20 black children who have been exposed to gun violence all their lives being killed one by one in the cross-fire of all-too-familiar neighborhood violence in an inner-city setting over the course of three days. What do you imagine our national reaction would be? Wait. We know what our national reaction would be, because this scene, like the first scene in Newtown, has actually happened. It is happening right now, to approximately one child or teen EVERY THREE HOURS. That means a Newtown EVERY 3 DAYS in America!
So what is our national reaction? Our national reaction is nothing. No media frenzy, no demands for better security, for arming principals, no calls for tighter gun control, no focus on mental health access, no conclusions that the world is a dangerous and cruel place, no tears from our half-black president, no frenzy of blogs, no discussions on listservs, no terrified white parents trembling as they drop their children off at school, no mental health professionals scurrying to assist grieving parents in explaining these events, no discussion of post-traumatic stress.
According to the children’s defense fund, black children and teens accounted for 45% of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008, but were only 15% of the total child population. That deserves repeating. In 2008 (and the stats are similar for 2009, the other year CDF reported on), black children accounted for 45%of gun deaths but only 15% of all children nationwide.
Black teens are the victims of gun homicide at 2.5 the rate of latino teens and EIGHT TIMES the rate of white teens, according to the black youth project. The leading cause of death among Black teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008 and 2009 was gun homicide. For White teens 15 to 19 it was motor vehicle accidents.
When I read these statistics, I have to ask myself, what are we really outraged about? What are we really reacting to when the nation comes together and mourns Newtown? Because if we were outraged about guns killing kids, we would be this outraged at least twice a week. I absolutely think our reaction to Newtown is appropriate. We need to take action, we need to talk about mental health and gun control (in addition to male gender norms, an important and all but invisible topic), and a variety of other topics.
But our outpouring after Newtown only serves to highlight and underscore our profound and deafening silence when the victims of gun grime are black and/or poor. Because the fact is we are not shocked that someone took a gun and shot children. We’re shocked when someone shoots well-off, white, suburban children. The hard, painful truth is that we tolerate violence against children and teens everyday.
After much searching, I finally found one article on the internet that addresses this issue in the wake of Newtown. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes about the collective massacre of poor and minority kids that is largely ignored in this country:
The shock of Newtown, Conn., is its Norman Rockwell quality. It is a sampler of a place with high-steepled churches and the usual gathering spots — coffee shops and such, and repeated testimonies to the serenity of the town. But what happened there — the sheer horror, the incomprehensible number of victims — tends to obscure how ordinary the death of children by gunshot has become. This is a collective massacre long ignored. Really, guns don’t kill people. Apathy does.
Later, Cohen goes on to say:
But far from rare — and hardly noticed — is the routine mayhem caused by guns — handguns, not combat stuff — and the daily shooting of children. Every weekend we aggregate a Newtown. It is our national shame.
EVERY WEEKEND! The next time that wave of grief and horror washes over you, think about feeling that way every weekend. When we put ourselves in the shoes of those parents, and see our own children’s faces in the faces of the children on our televisions, we are roused to action. We imagine the ripple effects that will paralyze families and communities and generations. But what about the mental health realities for poor, minority, and inner city children who literally grow up dodging bullets and mourning their siblings and friends. What are the ripple effects of this? Why are we not demanding an increased focus on mental health for them? After all, if access to quality healthcare for well-off kids is lacking (and it is), we must face that it is nearly impossible to come by in the places where complex trauma is most pervasive.
The fact is if this white, middle class mother who states she could be Adam Lanza’s mother can’t access the proper mental health services for her disturbed son, how can folks in communities where violence is a daily occurrence who have no resources access mental health services? If we believe we can just isolate ourselves in our safe, middle class communities and not worry about it, we are delusional. Even if you can honestly bring yourself to care less about those poor and minority kids, you can’t argue that trauma isn’t rippling all through our society. It is filling our jails, it is taxing our social services, it is crippling our medical system, and it is breeding more violence, and more violence. Is this the society we want?
The fact is, many of us are so shocked and horrified by Newtown because our children are, in fact, so safe. Because they are not offered drugs on the way to school. Because they have never known someone who was killed by a gun. Because they are not being recruited into gangs in middle school. Because their chances of being killed by guns are minute. We have the privilege of outrage and shock. What about the mother watching the news today who is thinking my child and I live this nightmare everyday. Take a look at the faces of the children pictured here wielding the names of other kids they know who’ve been killed by guns. Where is our outrage and horror for these children?
Put in this context, it’s bizarre that our reaction to Newtown is of such shock. This piece states that “you could fill Fenway Park three times over with the 110,000 children killed by guns in the U.S. over the past 30 years!” Okay, if gun violence against children is so rampant, why are we so stunned by Newtown? There is only one answer, and that answer has to do with race. Even the piece quoted above, in which the writer is enraged by the frequency of gun violence against children, doesn’t mention race once. How can we possibly talk about this issue without talking about who is being victimized?
Perhaps the Trayvon Martin case represented progress. But for the most part, the media coverage of violence against black teens is non-existent. Perhaps that is because more frequently black teens die at the hands of other blacks. Does this make these deaths any less tragic? We are all struggling this week to figure out why. What went wrong that no one noticed that this white male, Adam Lanza, was capable of this? What were the signs? What do we need to do? Is this about gun control or mental health?
When young black men in poor neighborhoods commit crimes, these questions are not asked because the answers are obvious. Of course these young men have mental health problems, they are traumatized by repeated violence, abuse and neglect. They are anxious and scared for their own safety, they are depressed due to lack of opportunity, the high likelihood they will end up incarcerated, and seeing their families struggle generation after generation while our country turns it head in silence. They are confounded by a culturally constructed masculinity that equates rape and murder with strength and respect, and gang culture that rewards crime and ruthlessness. They are enraged at a society that sees them as expendable, or worse, doesn’t see them at all. There is nothing perplexing in there cases. We are not left scratching our heads asking why. If we wanted to step in, the solutions would be obvious. Jobs. Education. Economic opportunity. True racial equality.
There may be no solution to prevent Newtown and other similar massacres, and if there is, it is complex, multifaceted, and would probably require way more resources than we are prepared to spend to save what is, in reality, a relatively small number of lives. Why not put our resources where they can make a dramatic and sustained impact through proven methods that we know will work? Why not? Unless we’d rather save 100 white children than 1000 black children? It seems to me we would.
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