by Edward M. Jones, board chair of the Black Philanthropic Alliance and founding member of the Black Benefactors giving circle
I recently sat with leaders (young and old) mobilizing to demand change for our collective betterment. A week ago, the National League of Cities hosted workshops with the theme, Cities United: Building Communities to Reduce Violent Deaths among Black Men and Boys. Philly Mayor Nutter and NOLA Mayor Landrieu have joined forces to address this with the hope that the bloodshed will abate. They are even encouraging us to think differently about what is really going on. Dr. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of Ceasefire, brought a key message that this is not a public safety issue, but a public health issue.
The compelling argument (powerfully shared by trained epidemiologist Slutkin), is that if violent deaths amongst black men/boys were a virus, there would be mass engagement to isolate and address the issue (we’d be in hazmat suits). The truth is death (and injury) of African American men and boys has risen to epidemic proportions in too many communities in the land of the “free”. Greater than half the murders, in some communities, are black men and boys. Sadly, the sense of urgency doesn’t seem to exist because of the color of the skin of the victim and (oftentimes) perpetrator. The cure has been to quickly incarcerate and not get to the root causes of this embodiment of self-hatred. Some have argued that it’s because of poverty—yet poverty has been in the black community for centuries—without the mass killing.
Why is it that a nation with liberty and justice for all doesn’t seem to hold true the spirit of equality and equal justice? What is particularly ironic is how the outrage might manifest. Tensions are rising, bloggers blogging, twitterers twittering and trending, because of the cold-blooded killing of the candy and iced tea-armed Florida teen, Trayvon Martin. People from near and far are demanding an arrest of the shooter and a swift atonement for this inexplicable loss of life, brought by a community leader who was, allegedly, on patrol to PROTECT Trayvon and his neighbors—not bring them harm. I only hope that there is justice brought about in this death. And soon.
If you Google “Trayvon Killed” you will find an endless list of articles about Trayvon Martin. But, where is the attention about the death of the other Trayvon’s out there? I can assure you that there is another Trayvon, Michael, Tony, and countless other young men who met an untimely fate on the streets of a city near you—and possibly at the hands of someone who shared the same skin color. Oftentimes, when a young man is a victim of “black on black” crime it seems to minimize the outrage; but Trayvon Martin’s alleged killer was of another race, which has everyone up in arms. There is a life lost and lives around that will be changed forever. That’s what happens when someone/anyone is murdered. Again, I ask, who will ignite the passion to say that ALL murder is wrong? How do we get to the root causes so we can stem the tide of violent and unnecessary deaths amongst all of our citizens?
The sobering statistics from 2009, where black male deaths account for the majority of murders in cities such as Birmingham (70%), Buffalo (66%), Chattanooga, (75%); Cincinnati (71%); Dayton (74%); New Haven (81%), warrant concern. The death of Trayvon is just another example of the mortality that so many young black males meet daily. Hearing the 911 call makes it even more chilling. What made Trayvon so ominous that 911 would have to be called in the first place?
I’m also reminded of the horrible 2009 death of Chicago teen, Derrion Albert . Gone too soon and with no rationale, Albert’s beating generated considerable shock and outrage in the news—because it was caught on tape, like the beating of Rodney King 21 years ago. And the killers weren’t wearing a hood or pointed hat. Think of the many beatings and killings of black men that aren’t caught on tape—daily.
Too many are quick to dismiss the victims (the perpetrator and the dead) because they “got what was coming to them because of their actions” or “lifestyle”. Often, people chalk up the fate of victim and perp because of how they were brought up or their zip code. Many think that some crimes are simply supposed to happen in “that neighborhood.” I’d argue (and headlines confirm) that crime happens everywhere. Yet, the atrocity comes when it’s in the community where “that doesn’t happen”. Nonetheless, until we treat this epidemic with a concerted sense of urgency and committed resources, we won’t find the cure—and we all suffer because of it.
I’m reminded of how many people dismissed the “mystery disease” that began to kill white, gay men at an alarming rate in the mid-eighties. Too many people didn’t care about the lives lost or the issue, because they didn’t fit that “demographic”. Now HIV/AIDS, while better understood and treated, knows no demographic or geographic boundaries. Imagine where we might be today if people were more fixated on finding the cure, helping the victims and understanding the suffering, instead of criticizing and preaching hate.
As one of the older folks, I was blessed to hear from our future during Cities United. Young people from DC and across the country were invited to share their thoughts on these issues facing us—and they brought solutions that “US OLDER FOLK” have the resources to direct towards change. Many ignore deeply rooted challenges in our communities. Our young people see that there is a need for change, but they need us as much as we need them to fix it. We need a community defibrillator. We need to jumpstart our hearts to collectively beat so that we work, in tandem, to build a truly just society. Now, let’s get started, so that we are keeping other hearts in our community beating longer. One youth group expressed it very simply in their an exercise illustrating a Root Cause Tree, which they named “we need love (someone hug us).” [see photo above]
Post-script: As I typed this a friend posted that they lost a friend to the virus. Rest in peace, Dwayne Alexander, and the others who died while I tried to put these words together. Earlier this month, a Virginia high school teacher told her black student that he’s not reading a Langston Hughes poem “black enough.” Black men and boys are under attack—there is much work to be done to end it.