It is going to take more than requiring universal background checks, banning military-style assault weapons and showcasing families hurt by gun violence to impact the urban areas where gun violence is at its worst. In the black community, that means serious efforts to change a culture that for too many say it is okay to carry and use a handgun.
The task is daunting — so much so that people from all levels have to do things differently, from friends to family to the most recognizable member of the black community, President Obama.
For starters, the president, who is to be in Chicago Friday to talk about gun violence, needs to take care to whom he gives his stamp of approval.
I thought it odd, for example, that as the president and his family made their way to his public swearing-in on Jan. 21 that not far behind the Obamas were singer Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z, the former Brooklyn drug dealer-turned-successful, legitimate businessman.
In his 2010 book “Decoded,” Jay-Z explains how in the 1980s and early ’90s drug gangs from Brooklyn spread south, “and the competition turned the game bloody from Brooklyn to Baltimore to D.C. to the Carolinas.” Later in the book, Jay-Z writes: “Maryland ended badly, too — shootouts in clubs, major police investigations, whole crews arrested. I got out of there just in time.”
For those who do not recall that time period or did not live through it, here’s a bit of history. Crack exploded in the D.C. and Baltimore areas in the late 1980s. Battles over drug turf, especially outdoor drug markets, fed a spiraling homicide rate in both cities.
Baltimore tallied 2,259 slayings from 1986 to 1993. In D.C., the number of dead for those years was 3,073. There were so many drug-related shootings in D.C. that the local Fox affiliate created a nightly show called City Under Siege in which camera crews rushed from shooting to shooting to air live coverage of the crime scenes.
Let’s be clear; Jay-Z has never been accused of or been charged with killing anyone or shooting anyone other than his brother, whom Jay-Z wounded when he was 12. In recent interviews Shawn Carter has said he is not advocating violence but offers a look at issues in urban America.
But is Jay-Z a person to whom the President, who is in a battle to pass gun control legislation, should give an imprimatur?
Just look at a small sampling of gun crimes that have occurred in predominantly black communities since the President’s historic second inauguration.
Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicago girl, was fatally shot in the back in a park in Chicago about one mile from the Obamas’ home. Days before, the girl performed with her high school as a drum majorette during inaugural festivities in D.C. The man charged used a handgun. Her slaying was one of 42 recorded in Chicago last month.
In Prince George’s where four seniors from different high schools have been shot and killed since the start of the school year, the principal of Eleanor Roosevelt, considered the best public high school in the county, sent a note home to parents informing them that a student brandished a handgun at a school bus stop near the school in Greenbelt.
Handguns accounted for 72 percent of all gun-related homicides in 2011, according to a CNN report. So it is easy to understand that legislation focused on banning military-style assault rifles would have little impact in reducing gun violence in urban areas.
And that brings me back to president Obama and Jay-Z at the Inauguration. It is not just that the president stood with an artist who has glorified the use of handguns. Their pairing at such an historic event also desensitizes our young people to how life really works: they need to know that if you live in a world that gets “bloody” and “messy” you are not likely to end up hanging out with the president of the United States.
I asked 30 young African Americans recently whether they questioned Jay-Z’s presence with the president. Only one of them saw a problem.
Suppose Jay-Z had shot or killed a person? “He’s an icon,” one member of the group said. “He turned his life around,” another offered. “He’s a role model,” said a third.
The lone dissenter in the groups was a young person whose brother had been shot and wounded by a gunman who was charged but acquitted at trial. “What happened messed up my brother, and messed up my family,” the young person said. “Having Jay-Z at the inauguration, they should have given that some more thought.”
Keith Harriston formerly covered criminal justice issues and public safety policy at The Washington Post. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits www.hunewsservice.com.
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