Recent events in the nation’s capital is once again a call to action; a call to address a long-festering national emergency. And no, I am not referring to the squabbles that have engulfed the corridors of Congress or The White House in recent weeks. But rather, the ones that have surrounded a 28 year-old black male with three kids to feed and $80 million on the line, bringing four handguns into an entertainment arena.
How I wish the recent action of Washington Wizards basketball player Gilbert Arenas could be a singular event from which we could all move on: adjudicate appropriate punishment and sum it up to ole grand error in judgment. But I’m afraid matters are not as simple.
The plurality of this event is a national crisis. Young black men and guns are an alarming tandem. From 29 year-old Grammy Award-winning rapper T.I. serving a jail sentence for illegal possession of three machine guns, two silencers, and eight other firearms, to 27 year-old Grammy Award-winning rapper Lil Wayne pleading guilty to felony possession of a .40-caliber semi-automatic: From 32 year-old New York Giants wide-receiver Plaxico Burress serving a two-year stint for possession of an illegal Glock pistol with which he shot himself, to 26 year-old Cleveland Cavaliers guard Delonte West being arrested on a speedway with as much arms as a soldier in a combat zone—it’s evident money and fame has not been enough to separate young black males from guns.
Even in instances where they’ve not been carriers of firearms, they’ve been sought out by firearms. The cases of 24 year-old Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor and 24 year-old Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams come to mind. Both were shot and killed by other young black men.
According to a report released just this past summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among homicide victims ages 10 to 24 years-old, 84% were killed with a firearm—with homicide rates among non-Hispanic, African-American males in this age group at 62.2 per 100,000 compared to non-Hispanic, White males at 3.4 per 100,000.
The late hip-hop emcee and thespian, Tupac Amaru Shakur, who lost his life to gun violence as well at the age of 25, made a statement I believe is profound in guiding us as we navigate this crisis. “They ask us why we mutilate each other like we do,” he said. “They wonder why we hold such little worth on human life …To ask us why we turn from bad to worse is to ignore from which we came.”
So as a young black male that graduated from an inner-city public high school just some years back, and lived in what is still one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., I know it is futile to talk about young black males and guns without addressing the conditions that make them a fixture in the black experience—as Mr. Shakur proposed.
Drugs—the “Bubonic Plaque” that has infested black neighborhoods makes the influx of guns an inescapable reality. As any amateur drug dealer is bound to soon tell you, “muscle” is required in any successful drug peddling. And of course, you can argue about the social conditions that make drugs convenient in the first place, but at the end, you’d still have to trace your way back to them.
Gun violence is the way turf battles are settled in the streets. Consider the drug business in black neighborhoods like any other business on Wall Street—but without the shootouts. And even then, businesses still engage in hostile takeovers when there is no perceptible conflict. Only in the streets, guns are needed to cement and reinforce these biddings, in lieu of pens and papers. And it is from this culture that young black men have bought into a lifestyle of resolving disputes with firearms even when drugs are not involved. Hence, the action of Mr. Arenas. It is a culture that teaches to reach for bullets before brotherhood. And into this chasm is where America’s young black men have fallen.
Which is why I believe it’s principal that our first line of defense against this onslaught be education—like many in the past have suggested. That Malcolm X said “Education is our passport to the future” is still relevant to today’s young black males.
In a report produced last year by The Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS) at Northeastern University in Boston and The Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, one in four black males, age 20-24, was an high school dropout in the year 2007. With no viable means of survival and a host of other elements that make living conditions in black neighborhoods porous, I believe it’s not far-fetched to expect that these young men at some point will fall into crime, drugs most especially, and consequently the gun violence we see today.
I have heard views as radical as paying these young men to stay in school. While I do not accept nor discount such a view, I believe it’s emblematic of the urgency with which we need to address this crisis. And yes, as young black males continue to play with guns and other vices, they go to jail—according to The Sentencing Project, 1 in 3 black males born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime if current trends continue—all with modest impact on public safety. The money spent on incarceration can be better spent in preventing the need for mass incarceration in the first place. Investing aggressively in re-enrollment programs for dropouts, funding afterschool programs and deficient public school systems are just a few of the ways to go.
Disrupting the culture of gun violence among young black males by promoting education is as much a matter of economic security as it is of public safety. We will do well to address it now before we are bankrupt by the vengeful wages of inaction.