Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Black on Black Male Violence: A Tale of Two Whys?

"Your History II" from "Kin Killin' Kin"Art Exhibit

By T.M. Bonner

   This is a story about ‘why.’ Specifically, it is a tale of two ‘whys,’ and why we as a society ask it in some cases of murder, while in other cases we don’t.

   We readily asked why white youth murdered classmates at Columbine High. All Americans wanted to know why a 20-year-old white youth would viciously open fire on and murder innocent six-year-olds at Sandy Hook – geneticists even going so far as to study the DNA of the assailant for clues. We wanted to know everything we could about why two immigrant Chechen brothers would carry out a plot to kill at the Boston Marathon, heartlessly destroying lives and families. But when it comes to the epidemic of Black on Black male murder, the righteous indignation accompanied by the asking of 'why?' to this continued loss of life, seems to – aside from a few voices within the black community – dissolve into an inaudible whimper.

   So, why is it that people are reluctant to ask why when it comes to Black on Black male murder? As a former journalist, ‘why?’ was my best friend as I went out into the world covering stories and seeking truth. What was called the ‘Five Ws and the H’ guide to covering news stories (the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?), was ingrained on the brain daily in J-school. Then as a working journalist, you quickly realized that just knowing the ‘why’ of something unlocks a lot of the puzzle of a situation before you, enabling you to understand the actions of the people involved so you can better articulate that to the world. Even in the world of police work, the seeking of the answer to the  ‘why’ (i.e., motive) leads police directly to a killer in the vast majority of murder cases.

   ‘Why’ provides valuable insight and knowledge to guide action in the future. ‘Why’ eliminates mystery and closes chapters. And chapters must be closed before people are truly able to move on, do better, and be better.

   But, ironically, society continues to struggle with confronting the ‘why.’ I speak from experience when I say that even the social service industry – charged with tackling the country’s social problems – struggles with it. Particularly those working on the front lines of social services (i.e. working directly with clients), don’t’ have the time, resources, support, or (in some cases) are discouraged by superiors to even have the inclination to ask the ‘why’ of their clients’ situations. You are supposed to just pull out your ready supply of Band-Aids from your first aid kits (Food Stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, etc.), and it’s on to the next of many clients. Trying to tackle a client’s ‘why’ in this overwhelmed environment will earn you anything but a gold star.

   When it comes to black on black male murder, the best people can offer is the ‘what’ in the form of statistics.

   Here are some of the stats that people like to reference:

  • The New York City Police Department reports that 83 percent of the victims of black suspects arrested for or identified with murder in 2012 were also black.
  • While Black New Yorkers made up only 23 percent of the city’s population, they were 60 percent of those murdered.
  • Nearly 40 percent of all the murder victims in 2012 were black males between the ages of 16 and 37 – the vast majority murdered via gun violence.

   The news from Chicago isn’t much better:

  • Blacks made up 75 percent of all the 433 murder victims in 2011, versus 4.6 percent of white victims. And they made up 70.5 percent of all murder offenders, versus 3.5 percent for whites.
  • From 1991 to 2004, there were 2,383 gang-related murders involving black victims. Thirty-eight percent of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 19.

   Instead of being an impetus for asking ‘why,’ those statistics have become the go-to place for stereotypical belief systems about the black male. Those statistics are being used to support whatever agenda those in power have at the moment – whether it is advancing questionable legal/social practices when it comes to black males, confirming stereotypes of the black male already imbedded in their heads, or even to seek license to murder them, as in the cases of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis out of alleged ‘fear’ for their lives. Those statistics have guided everything from Stop-and-Frisk police practices, to Stand Your Ground laws, to more lengthy prison sentences than whites committing the same crimes, or even for non-violent infractions.

   In fact, the trend since the Trayon Martin case has been that those statistics have provided the misguided security of a place to counterattack when those in the black community and others seek justice for the wrongful killings by whites of black youth like Martin and Davis. That voice from the secure warmth of those statistics says: “But black people kill black people much more than white people kill black people.” You can hear such a voice in various intonations and phrasings coming from the lips of the Bill O’Reillys and other Fox News pseudo-journalists. You heard similar musings after the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in August, where the Martin case was greatly referenced. But is the fact that white people don’t kill black males as much as other black males worthy of a badge of honor? In both cases, lives were lost that shouldn’t have been lost.

   Such a limited, go-to belief system of thinking doesn’t ask 'why?' Instead, such a mindset only suppresses important dialogue about the clear racial issues inherent in cases such as Martin’s and Davis,’ and impedes progress toward such situations not occurring in the future. It shields society from thinking deeper about the complexities involved in black on black male violence. It stunts any progress in finding effective and long-term solutions to the problem. It trivializes the loss of young lives.

   But Ohio-based artist James Pate has been asking 'why.' He began crafting a series of sketches in 2000 about black on black male youth violence as a way of expressing his own woes about the ever-present social problem. Pate has since turned his sketches into a major art exhibit called “Kin Killin’ Kin” that is currently touring the U.S., with its current location at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago through November. Pate visually costumes the black youth perpetrators of violence in his pieces in garments reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan in order to illustrate the similarities of the destructiveness of the Klan’s violence on African-Americans with the impact of black on black male youth violence on the African-American community and the threat to their rich history in America. The brilliance in the exhibit is its ability to simultaneously show you the ‘what’ of black on black male youth violence while also asking you to ponder the ‘why.’

   “Racism is the number one culprit for the problems,” Pate said, noting the residual effects of centuries of slavery on African-Americans. “It goes back to it being unlawful to read or write. If you don’t educate a person, you are going to weaken them. What do you then hand down? You’ve got generations that are not educated – and that leads to a lot of stuff – including Kin Killin’ Kin.”

(For more on the "Kin Killin' Kin" Exhibit, read my blog post: "Artist Uses Art to Tackle Black on Black Male Youth Violence")

   Several researchers in the field of social service have also drawn important conclusions about the impact of racism on African-Americans. A 2000 study concluded that racism impacts African-Americans psychologically in various ways, including the stress of continually living in poor and dangerous conditions as a result of limited opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, and by causing them to develop a low self-image and the sense that black life has less value (internalized racism) as a result of continued negative stereotypes.

   This push for the country to take the impact of racism more seriously is not new. Back in the 60s – and in the midst of vast racial violence and antagonism toward African-Americans – several black psychologists, including Harvard Professor Dr. Alvin Poussaint of “The Cosby Show” consultant fame, led an effort to officially classify extreme forms of racism as a mental health problem by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Despite the APA’s continued rejection of the proposal, Poussaint has continued his assertion that such a classification is needed, citing the potential benefits of identifying those with extreme racist views and providing therapeutic intervention to prevent those with such extreme mindsets from acting violently toward the targets of their racist views.

   Unfortunately, America as a whole is not ready to even readily admit the continued presence of racism – institutional, cultural and individual – let alone take the next steps in acknowledging and addressing the continued impacts of racism on African-Americans and African-American youth. So, perhaps the presence of the elephant in the room that is racism causes the fear of asking 'why' when it comes to social problems in African-American communities such as black on black male youth violence. Of course, this is not to say that racism is the only factor in the problem. But it is the root from which the tree of dysfunction has grown.

   Sure, we could continue to do what we currently do: treat the symptoms and not the root illness, pretending that the illness is not why someone is sick in the first place. But where has that taken us – despite all of the valiant efforts to treat the symptoms through various programs and initiatives for black male youth? Only to continued dire statistics about black on black male violence. It’s like curing a sick person of a contagious disease and then sending him back to live among infection.

    It is time to stop avoiding the ‘why.’ Why? It is because the potential loss to this country through the continued loss of the lives of black youth (and all children, for that matter) is too great. Case in point: A few years ago, I attended an exhibit at the New York Historical Society on Slavery in New York. The exhibit took you through the slave experience, from the slave ship to the auction block, to life on the plantation. But the most profound moment came when you reached the end of the exhibit. At the end there was a list of the contributions African-Americans have made to the country. The list was so long that it covered an display area. And, yes, the inventions of many black men were on that list. Their contributions to America include everything from life-saving medical techniques, to the traffic signal, the gas mask, the carbon filament that made the light bulb by Thomas Edison possible, down to the potato chips that you will be eating this weekend.

   Perhaps one of those black youth killed held the key to a scientific/medical problem that plagues our world, or an invention that society needs to make our lives better.

   It is also time to start asking 'why' because like any infectious disease, it spreads. The sad case of the murder of Australian student Christopher Lane in Oklahoma is proof of that fact. 

   So, the next time you have the inclination to throw out another statistic about black on black male youth violence, don’t forget to ask ‘why?’ Our future just might depend on it.


Chicago Police Department, Research and Development Division (2005). Chicago Crime Trends 1(1).  Gang-Motivated Murders: 1991-2004.

Chicago Police Department, Research and Development Division (2011). Chicago Murder Analysis 2011.

Hagan, Caitlin. (2012). Geneticists Studying Connecticut Shooter's DNA. Retrieved from  www.cnn.com/2012/12/27/health/connecticut-lanza-dna.

New York City Police Department (2012). Murder in New York City 2012.

Poussaint, Alvin F. (2002). Point-Counterpoint: Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness? Western Journal of Medicine. January 2002; 176(1):4.

Williams, D. R. & Williams-Morris, R. (2000). Racism and Mental Health: The African-American Experience. Ethnicity & Health. 5(3/4): 243-268. DOI: 10.1080/1355785002000009356


T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is currently doing studies in the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York City. 

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