I recently received a phone call that a nephew of mine was shot and killed by an unidentified assailant. This was the third time one of my nephew’s or grandnephew’s lives were extinguished by gun violence. The Ku Klux Klan could not devise a more efficient “play book” for the extermination of young Black males as the self destruction taking place in the Black community resulting from Black- on-Black killings.
Why is it that the current modus vivendi of young men to dress with outrageous garb: baggy clothes, pants falling down, underwear showing, and of course a cell phone coupled with a propensity for violence? What is it about young Black males who want to look like criminals and are upset when society treats them like criminals? Young Black males comprise about six-percent of the population, yet they make up almost 50 percent of the prison population. This anti-social behavior is seen not only in their appearance, but also in their attitudes towards education and respect for others, including the respect for human life.
We know the reasons for the violence occurring in our communities: drugs and robbery that leads to murder. Professor Alan Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University has found that Blacks are subject to robbery at an 8 to 1 ratio compared to Whites. They are subject to murder at a four to one ratio compared to Whites. The drugs problem in our community, especially crack, has lead to sellers being robbed and thus carrying guns for protection or retaliation. Gun homicide rates in the United States per 100,000 are 77.6 for Blacks versus 8 for Whites. The trauma associated with gun violence has devastated our communities with procedures to guard against guns including metal detectors in our schools, stable people leaving our community and of course children joining gangs.
In May 2004, at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Bill Cosby told the mainly Black tie audience that, fifty years after Brown, “the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end of this deal.” The heart of his argument was that the multiple problems affecting the Black poor are not primarily the result of racial discrimination, structural inequities or state policy, but rather are due to individual and collective behavioral dysfunction in that segment of the Black community. The problem Cosby cited in 2004 has manifested itself today in more alarming ways whereby young Blacks are forming “Flash Mobs,” which are nothing more than street criminals preying on society in several major cities.
I made a similar argument as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaker at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law almost 10 years ago. I was criticized at the time for “blaming the victims” by one of my former students. Why is it that Blacks will not face up to the truth and condemn the dysfunctional and antisocial behavior of a segment of our community that is becoming larger each day?
Another important factor that has crated this climate of violence in the Black community is that the United States has more guns that are privately held and more permissive gun laws than most countries in the western world. Gun homicide rate per 100,000 in the United States is 77.6 percent for Blacks, 8 percent for Whites and 0.4 percent for citizens of other nations. Also there is no control of the flow of guns in our nation, thus guns used in Pittsburgh may come from South Carolina—guns travel. There is no limit as to the number of guns that can be purchased by a citizen without a criminal record, many homes have multiple guns. Therefore, when a burglary takes place guns are the prize booty for the criminal. This leads to the extreme number of illegal weapons on our streets.
Professor David Hemingway of Harvard University has found that the view of adolescents and the carrying of guns is that most young Blacks would like to live in a world where it would be difficult to get a gun. He suggests that maybe the smoking success could be emulated in the case of guns. We should follow the advice of Pattie LaBelle and create a “New Attitude” among our young people. Thus, we should not only teach our kids to say no to dugs, but also say no to guns. No longer can we continually set ourselves off against an oppressor, but must see that the fault is not in the stars but in ourselves.
Robert Berkley Harper
(Harper is professor emeritus of Law University of Pittsburgh.)