Book review: 'Wrong Place, Wrong Time' by John Rich

By Colbert I. King
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010


Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men

By John A. Rich

Johns Hopkins Univ. 212 pp. $24.95

The shooting of a young black male doesn't make the front page. It's most likely to appear inside the Metro section -- that is, if the victim dies. Even then, he's unlikely to receive more than a couple of inches of print. After all, it's the same old story: young black men killing other young black men. What's the big deal? The shooter and the victim are assumed to be drug dealers or gang-bangers doing their thing in a part of town where people of means and good sense would never venture.

Which is why those of us who spend time tracking violence and its impact on every aspect of life in urban America -- as well as anyone with an ounce of humanity -- ought to be thrilled to see a book like "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" come along. It looks beyond the gunplay, offering a window on urban violence by putting faces with the cold statistics and presenting stories in the victims' own words. The author, John A. Rich, a former medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission and currently a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health and director of the Center for Academic Public Health Practice, comes to the subject from the vantage point of having worked on the problem at ground zero.

As a primary-care physician at Boston City Hospital, known for its care of poor folks, especially those of color, Rich saw the wounds and scars of young black patients at the height of the time when shooting victims were arriving at the emergency room with the regularity of sunrise. Although set in Boston, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" could have been written about young black men in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago or Los Angeles. The statistics are nearly unvarying from coast to coast: Young black men have higher rates of fatal and nonfatal violence than any other group. For years, homicide has been the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 64.

But this book is not about homicide rates, which Rich rightly calls "the tip of the iceberg." Left unseen, and scandalously unreported by the news media, are the nonfatal shootings, knifings and beatings that take place nightly. "For every person who gets shot and dies, another four get shot and survive," he writes. He takes us into the world of the survivor.

What separated Rich from many of his fellow health-care providers at Boston City was his ear for the pain in these young black voices, pain growing out of what he calls "the scarring effects of trauma." He was drawn to these men and, as time went on, drawn to the idea of writing about them, because they weren't just his patients; he shared their color, even if he was separated from them by economic and social circumstances.

Rich was stung by the ignorance and insensitivity of his colleagues who assumed that, when a young black man was rolled into the emergency room with a gunshot wound, "he didn't just get shot; he got himself shot." In Rich's view, that assumption was confirmed in the murmurs that followed the patient from the trauma suite. "Sure they did their job and saved a life. But they were pretty sure, lacking evidence or information to the contrary, that they had saved the life of . . . some . . . stereotype of a young black male absorbed from the news or television."

"There was," Rich writes, "a hovering nihilism that 'these people' were who they were and nothing could be done about it."

So Rich allows us to hear from David, Kari, Roy, Jimmy and Mark. We walk in their shoes on their chaotic and violent streets, and we learn something about acting tough and the need for respect. We learn, too, what it means to feel physically, psychologically and socially unsafe, and how that translates into getting a weapon for self-defense or retaliation. No apologist for violence, Rich asks that we not so much judge the actions of Kari and company, "good or bad, sensible or senseless, as . . . hear from them and understand how and why they arrive in these perilous places."

But it's hard to escape moral judgments as these young men tell their stories. Listen to Roy: "Well, my moms and pops started having babies when they were 15, so they were just kids raising kids. They were the neighborhood tough couple. Badass mother, badass father, for real. So they taught us early, 'If somebody messes with you and they're bigger than you, pick up a brick or a stick and bust their head wide open.' . . . My pops was a big one for trying to end a fight quick. So for him, busting somebody's head open to start off the action was the way to do things."

That's bad parenting. David, Kari, Mark and Jimmy had fathers who were jailed, addicted or otherwise absent. Jimmy and Kari had crack-addicted mothers. Roy spent a summer on the street living in a discarded bear cage. Their traumas began long before shots rang out. Pervasive fear and the instinct for physical and emotional survival, not economic necessity, turned them to violence. Rich agrees with that. A more human understanding of their problems, of how they arrived at the "perilous places" in their lives, is what he asks.

Colbert I. King is a Washington Post columnist.

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