The Washington Post

Hadiya Pendleton’s death: When black problems become America’s problems

Too many of our children live in communities where gun violence rivals the fatality rates of a war zone. Last year, more people were killed in the city of Chicago than American troops were killed in Afghanistan.

An undated family photo of Hadiya Pendleton. (Courtesy of OF DNAINFO.COM)

When I look at pictures of Hadiya online, I feel like I am looking at myself, at my former self, and the girls just like Hadiya that I went to high school with so many years ago.

As I gaze at this child, at this beautiful young sister, the sadness I feel is rimmed by a quiet rage. This is all too… familiar. How could such beauty and potential and power and light be destroyed by gun violence? Again.  

Back in the 1980s, the late scholar and Columbia University professor Manning Marable wrote a regular column called Along the Color Line. One article I remember vividly was called, "When Black Problems Become White." In it, Marable focused on drugs, specifically President Reagan's “War Against Drugs” and Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign. Marable provided statistics on drug use within the African American community, detailed the use of drugs to anesthetize the Black Power movement through Co-intelpro, and examined the debilitating impact of drugs on black families.

He then bemoaned the fact that the nation did not respond to the drug crisis, did not try to eradicate dangerous and illegal drug use in American communities, until the problem of addiction reached the suburbs and the white kids who lived there. The War on Drugs and the anti-drug PSA blitz didn't start, Marable said, until this black problem became white.

Of course, most of us did not need Marable to explain the connection between crack cocaine and enormous spikes in gun violence in our neighborhoods. In places like Baltimore, where I grew up, everyone, even girls with middle class backgrounds like me, knew someone who sold crack, or used crack, or both. Baltimore had the highest assault rate, and nearby Washington D.C. was The Murder Capital, through much of the Reagan-Bush years.

The cloudy stink of this era, The Crack Era, still hovers over our communities, still haunts us, today. Gun violence has become a kind of culture within our urban centers, much like hunting culture prevails in the more rural areas of the country. All of our Us Killing Us Equals Genocide marching, praying, and advocating all those decades ago surely must have saved some lives against a Public Enemy soundtrack, but it did not eliminate the gun violence in our streets. Witness Hadiya Pendleton.

I remember working as a teacher and putting my lesson plans back in a drawer on the days after a child in Baltimore had been killed. How could we process multiplication with so many lives being taken away? I remember the fear in the faces of my children in the classroom the day after a child their age was killed because an older child wanted his beanie cap. I remember the student who went to a cousin's or uncle's funeral every 6-8 weeks for an entire school year. She still, somehow, managed to maintain a B average.

I also vividly remember Columbine, the national outcry, the response. And I remember being angry. Of course, we all mourned the tragedy that took place at that school, but my peers had been attending schools where they had to walk through metal detectors for years. Where was the national outcry for us?

Now that I have a black son of my own, my rage has turned to a heart-crushing fear.

As a mother, I am thrilled that Newtown has launched a national dialogue concerning gun violence. As a black woman, I am disappointed that the outcry was triggered by the loss of mostly white, suburban children. As a person, I ache, because white life is clearly valued more than black life in this country, still, all these years after Reagan-Bush.

Marable's assertion is still relevant. Our problems don't become American problems, until they become white problems.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel about the experiences of the women left behind when a young man is shot and killed. Follow her at and on Twitter @EisaUlen



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