As a teenager in middle school, I watched my then-boyfriend help carry the casket of his 17-year-old best friend out of a church and into the back of a hearse. In my senior year of high school, a young black man I called my “play brother” was sentenced to prison as an adult for stabbing his classmate to death with an ice pick. The murders and lockups of African American men I knew amassed throughout my years in D.C. public schools.
While these horrific incidents of youth violence never cease to be shocking, they are a part of a long trajectory of black-on-black violence, typically involving men. Interviewing three African American community and thought-leaders recently, I sought to get perspectives from black men on the root of these intraracial crimes. They were asked a series of questions. Why does it seem that African American men have so little regard for the lives of other black men? Why would they place higher value on material possessions than on human life? And do these young men reflect hatred for their community and love of wealth?
R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York, said by e-mail: “Given the high levels of segregation that many Black males grow up in, the decreased employment opportunities, long term unemployment, and failing schools, the chances for young Black males to develop a sense of healthy self-worth are limited. Instead, material possessions and contestation over space like corners can be the spaces where worth and value are determined.”
Lewis-McCoy challenged me to think about where these young men derive their values from. “Black males, we cannot forget, are members of an American society which glorifies material wealth,” he said. “But they are some of society’s members with the fewest routes available to gain that wealth without putting their own and others’ lives in danger.”
East of the River Clergy Police Community Partnership, an organization that serves Southeast Washington, is one of countless nonprofits in the city that seek to address this problem of youth nihilism. It was founded in 1999 in response to rampant youth violence in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River with the mission of reversing the incidence of violent crimes, reducing recidivism rates and fostering educational achievement.
In 2010, a deadly drive-by shooting known as the South Capitol Street Massacre took place one block away from ERCPCP’s offices. Missing custom jewelry had led to the murder of three teenagers and dozens of injuries, resulting in five African American young men serving time for first- and second-degree murder convictions.
When asked if the work of grass-roots organizations such as ERCPCP is making a tangible difference in curtailing youth violence and offering hope to disenfranchised African American men, ordained reverend and ERCPCP Executive Director Donald Isaac Sr. said: “I have to believe that the work of people of good will and faith makes a difference. But through the years, I have come to believe that our work has to have a therapeutic and transformative basis.” He continued: “This behavior is reflective of deep emotional, psychological and spiritual scars.”
Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, echoed this sentiment by emphasizing the need to broaden our understanding of victimization.
“This is a horrible act. But we must try to understand the context that produced it,” Glaude said. “It isn’t simply that these young black men are evil. In so many ways, we have failed them. I am not absolving them of their responsibility for the crime. I am simply holding us responsible for the world that produced them.”
Glaude’s statement should cause us to pause. Yes, it’s easy to identify a clear victim in this situation: A young man senselessly lost his life ,and the alleged perpetrators of the crime showed that they pose a clear threat to society. But all three of the men that I interviewed shared the same belief: These young are themselves also victims.
Victims of an unjust society that has instilled the wrong values in them, failed to make them feel worthy and placed insurmountable barriers before them.
As Isaac rightfully said, these young men who took the life of another are scarred on many levels. We have no idea what type of environment and life experiences made them capable of such a horrific act. The problem is that no one ever tends to these types of wounds until it’s too late — until someone else has paid the price for their pain.
This is a vicious cycle that often results in young people making mistakes that change the course of their lives, deeply hurting their communities in the process. That cycle must end. It must end with us doing everything in our power to proactively tend to their wounds. Otherwise, we will perpetually be burying one young person as we cage another.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .
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