Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Breaking the cycle of gun violence in the black community
June 2 was "National Gun Awareness Day."
Recently, Working On Excellence, a new organization of black youths in Champaign, sponsored a L.O.V.E. march against gun violence. In three short years, National Gun Awareness Day has quickly become an annual memorial and day of protest.
African-American students on the South Side of Chicago created the commemoration to honor their slain classmate, Hadiya Pendleton. A 15-year-old student at King College Prep, Pendleton was accidently shot and killed on Jan. 29, 2013, by two young men hunting members of a rival gang.
Tragically, deaths like Pendleton's are quite common in African-American communities. In a March 2016 report, the Violence Policy Center reported that 84 percent of the 6,217 black homicide victims in 2013 were killed by guns. According to FBI data, that same year, blacks comprised 13 percent of the population but a staggering 50 percent of homicides. This latter statistic explains why the center considers African-American homicides an "epidemic" and a "national crisis."
The violence is gendered in contradictory ways. While at 87 percent, men are largely the victims, the racial gender disparity tells a more complex story. Percentage-wise, at 3.71 to 6.87 per 100,000, black men are less than twice as likely as white men to be murdered. But, at 1.39 to 4.36 per 100,000, black women are more than three times as likely as white women to be murdered!
Sadly, Champaign reflects the national trend; black men disproportionately compose the killers and the victims. Given the city's size, The News-Gazette rightly dubbed Champaign's 15 shootings and eight homicides in 2015 an "epidemic." Though the numbers are down in 2016, one homicide and five attempted murders, as well as the grisly dismemberment of Ashley Gibson, underscores that something is dreadfully wrong.
Statistics are valuable for establishing patterns and trends and suggesting the magnitude of something, but they cannot describe the effects on individuals, families or communities, nor can they identify the cause or offer remedies.
We know the role of structural factors. As the hip-hop crew The Coup raps in "Underdogs," "But crime rises consistent with the poverty rate/You take the workers and jobs, you're gonna have murders and mobs." While complex, generally, there is a positive relationship between increases in unemployment and poverty and rises in property and violent crime. We also know that while the intersection between race and soioeconomic inequality matters, higher gun ownership also contributes to more murders.
However, noneconomic factors are also fueling the current upsurge in gang-related gun violence. The police-initiated fracturing of African-American gang organization destroyed hierarchical control and transformed large gangs into small disparate factions.
Disputes among these "sets" are more a result of "being dissed" or perceived personal insults rather than territory and drug sales. Often, the violence is stimulated by affronts posted on social media.
In a world characterized by poverty and powerlessness, people attach an illogical importance to pride and reputation.
To explain excessive intraracial violence requires a journey into to the classic study of black anger and violence, Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth." Fanon's depiction of the apartheid structure and brutal social control that characterized classical colonialism corresponds closely to the oppressive social conditions under which African-Americans exist.
Fanon explains how the racially oppressed internalize the daily degradations and structural and physical violence to which they are routinely subjected. According to him, unable to release the anger on the source of their oppression, the colonized regularly explode in violent episodes against those who share their oppression.
Describing everyday occurrences in colonial Africa, Fanon wrote, "You will see the native reaching for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast on him by another native; for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-a-vis his brother."
Fanon's early 1960s discussion of Algeria captures contemporary intraracial relations on Chicago's South Side and in Champaign's North End.
Racial oppression — poverty, powerlessness and most of all, the racially motivated assaults on one's dignity — takes a toll. It builds a reservoir of anger in you, a fury whose ferocity is most often unleashed upon those closest to you, family, neighbors and others caged in the domestic colonies we politely call ghettos, barrios and reservations.
The violence emanates from what African-American psychologists call internalized racism, or feelings of inadequacy and self-hate, generated by white supremacy. The crime, violence and moral decay produced by racial oppression creates a traumatic environment, a setting that disrupts and undermines black community-building initiatives.
How do we dam the flood of violence surging through black communities?
At a minimum, it requires employment at a livable wage, strengthening and rigorously enforcing anti-discrimination laws, curbing police abuse, and equalizing school funding on a per-student basis.
Attending to the psychological issues derived from internalized racism is also a necessity and can occur independent of structural transformation.
As a former "angry" youth, I can attest that the path away from internalized violence runs through a re-education process that teaches you to value black people.
Learning about the structural forces undergirding racial oppression and acquiring knowledge of African-American history and culture can spark the development of a positive racial identity and a desire to make black lives better. Politically conscious black youths rarely murder each other.
In "Black Youth Rising," Dr. Shawn A. Ginwright echoes these sentiments. He contends care and healing are needed to end the violence. Real care and healing, for him, come from a black radical consciousness and an ethic of social justice. According to Ginwright, care must transcend trusting interpersonal relationships to emphasize black "cultural, communal, and political solidarity."
Ginwright believes healing from institutional and internalized racism requires black youths be taught to think critically, become self-aware, develop "a political understanding of racism," from which they can construct a healthy racial identity. Most important to Ginwright is the destruction of sexism and homophobia in the black community.
The key process in ending the violence requires reconstructing and creating what black feminist scholar-activist Althena D. Mutua calls "progressive Black masculinities." That is reorienting black men away from the domination of women and weaker men and toward liberation and social justice.
National Gun Violence Day and WOE's L.O.V.E. march are steps on the road toward a radical black healing process.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.