Sunday, July 19, 2009

Violence in Black Communities: The Causes and Solutions are Simply Complex

Shawn Williams and Trey Garrison have both written Viewpoints columns addressing the issue of 'black on black violence'. I appreciate both their efforts to provide perspectives on a problem that has reached crisis proportions. When Dallas Morning News' Sharon Grigsby sent me an email regarding her anguish with a recent story and statistics on violence in southern Dallas, I had to confess my challenge in coming up with solutions to the problem.

Trey's take on the matter has to do with a perspective which places the blame on the absence of black fathers in black families. Shawn approaches this scourge from the point of view that the black community must acknowledge the problem and have the courageous determination to deal with it, individually and organizationally. Both have valid points. But both adherents to both perspectives must take into account larger issues that contribute to a culture and a pathology so pervasive that it frustrates any work to help these communities achieve health.

To Trey's point, for instance, families can be significantly healthier when the father and mother are present in the home. But mere male presence isn't the cure all to self destructive or other destructive behavior. Trey isn't saying this, but it has to be realized that a great contribution to the violence that we see in our urban communities isn't due to the fact that the father is missing. Statistics aside, the father in that family has to be a healthy and helpful presence. Working, emotionally mature and available, loving the wife, children AND himself. I wish I could tell you how often I found that not to be the case in two parent families. The result: children, not just boys, who were in someways expressing anger and resentment. This is not a black phenomenon, but it is a problem that is exacerbated when poverty and the frustrations and failures associated with it are daily facts of life.

The other reality that Trey's solution doesn't take into account is the phenomenon of grandparents and even great-grandparents, raising children. These are often female headed households and the parents of these children are either deceased or incarcerated. It is important to point out that neither death nor incarceration are always according to stereotype. These parents sometimes actually die because of the diabetes related illnesses, cancer or heart disease. We have seen, as is represented by the exonerees in Dallas County who represent 10% of the exonerated wrongfully convicted citizens in this country, that everyone in prison isn't always guilty. Aside from that, not only are African-Americans disproportionately represented in the prison population - they also are disproportionately incarcerated for non-violent crimes. So its important to point out that grand and great-grandparents are not always raising the children of drug addicts and murderers.

The women who are rearing these children are, more often than not loving disciplinarians, deeply concerned about and committed to the children in their care, but who also don't always have the energy, perspective or resources to address the needs of growing adolescents.

The other issue to which Trey attributes the problem of the absence of fathers in the home is failure of 'the welfare state'. If heard this ad infinitum ad nuaseum. We often revise history and, in the process demonize old heroes and while sanctifying old demons. The 'welfare state's' failure had more to do with LBJ's determination to fight a war on poverty and a war in Viet Nam at the same time. There was not enough money or public will to do both effectively.

To judge what 'the welfare state' did to the black family, you clear about the causes of failure from the perspective that Trey's talking about. Like the drastic cuts in domestic spending which also took their toll on welfare recipients in the Nixon - Bush I eras (as a matter of fact, a snapshot of how welfare devolved can be seen by looking at the 70's Diahann Carol/James Earl Jones classic 'Claudine'). By the time of the Reagan years and its excoriation of the mythical Cadillac driving 'welfare queen', welfare, which never paid enough for any family to live on and has never represented more than 1-2% of the federal budget, was under constant attack as a drag on the economy and social fabric of the nation, and the damage on the black family. Was there abuse and fraud in the system? Yes. Did it result in the deconstruction of the black family? Not as much as the deconstruction of the economic infrastructure of black communities where jobs moved further and further away to places where it became less and less accessible to public transportation.

Collaterally there was also redlining of black communities: a decades long period where insurance and loans for the purchases homes, home improvement and even cars were difficult, if not impossible to come by. It was not a matter of income, work history or education - it was the systematic devaluing of property in black neighborhoods that led to the flight of the black middle and even working classes, the communities they left behind ultimately drifted into concentrated poverty. The reason being that those left behind were the least educated, the most vulnerable (the youngest, the oldest, the least healthy); they were those whose incomes didn't allow them the luxury of leaving for better neighborhoods and ultimately the city (in this case Dallas) invested less and less in infrastructure, code enforcement, public safety and education. In other words all the things that make neighborhoods liveable.

All of these issues contribute to a hopelessness and despair that lead to something that is hard for most of us to understand: the point where life itself appears so pointless that it becomes nearly valueless. It is the result of the failure of a number of systems that influence the lives of most of us who are in anyway successful. It has been much more than the absence of fathers.

Take for example environment. Sharon's colleague at DMN, Tod Robberson had a post a few weeks ago in which he expressed his dismay at a group of men drinking outside drinking at 9:30 in the morning, while a group of young people were involved in a neighborhood clean up. The fact is, no one can deny that there are people in Highland Park, or Frisco who drink at 10 in the morning. They do it indoors or behind gated communities. It is unacceptable to be seen outside swilling alcohol that early. But in a neighborhood proliferated with liquor related businesses and advertisement it can be taken as a matter of course. Especially when the saturation of liquor related businesses is excused as a result of 'the market.' Well you can't have it both ways: you can't pack an area with liquor related businesses, and then say that people who purchase the merchandise and become addicted are 'irresponsible'. Addiction becomes another contributing factor to the violence in poor communities. Those alcoholics and drug addicts are, more often than we realize, the mothers and fathers of some of the children that we are labeling directly or by inference, as incorrigible. It is, 'the water they swim in', and there are few people to teach them differently.

These addictions are among the physical and mental health issues that also must be dealt with. The difference between mental health problems in south Dallas and University Park is insurance. There are few places where people who are depressed - who suffer the psychological and emotional damage from dead in lives, and life lived quite literally, in a war zone, can go for therapy. In suburban areas people see counselors and doctors, in southern Dallas they go to jail or homeless shelters, where they become either the perpetrators of or the victims of violence.

Young people have few opportunities to play organized sports, too few safe parks and recreation centers. Normal childhood skirmishes in schools, that now have 'zero tolerance' for such, lead to early introductions to the criminal justice system or child protective services, introducing these young people far too early to the very elements from which we claim to want to shield them.

My point in all of this is that we don't have a simple problem when it comes to violence. Trey has part of the answer; Shawn has still another part. But the fact is this is an issue that we all must work on. We have to have communities for all of our people that are safe and livable.

At the end of the day, both Trey and Shawn say something that is right, but which doesn't reach deep enough into the problem: we all, know what the answer(s) are. Those answers include solutions as simple fathers engaged in and supporting the lives of their children and families, organizations and institutions becoming the guardians of the communities persistently working ending the scourge of violence. But I have to insist that there are systemic solutions of public investment and engagement that must be made to address the root issue of poverty. No matter how deep I believe the roots of those problems to be, however, I agree with the fundamental premise of Trey and Shawn's respective columns, as individuals, in the affected communities and regarding the city as a whole, the things we know must be done are the things we must do, no matter how hard they are.

We cannot afford to throw our hands in the air in frustration and surrender.

We cannot delude ourselves into believing that poverty is simply a matter of personal responsibility or laziness. To do so comforts those of us who don't want to be 'bothered' with these problems. We are indeed, deluded if we actually believe that the issue of violence in poor communities can be contained. We will all feel the impact in the explosion of that violence into 'secure' communities or the societal impact of the implosion of these communities as we lose not only the lives of the victims, but the productivity of the lives of the survivors.


Revvy Rev said...

On the money, Rev.!

Rawlins said...

God wants me to meet Gerald Britt! These comments are insightful…. based on more than something someone has read online or an amalgam of other writers' points. It’s about what someone knows rather than just saying what someone thinks. Someone drawing on their firsthand accounts of life and living.

I have a lot of faith that Trey believes every word he writes as does Shawn. But I hear something here beyond what I see written.. I see information….like the redlining of neighborhoods, which I experienced when my neighborhood became heavier black in the late 80s…. that is what one knows ONLY when they have at some point walked a walk.

Shawn Williams said...

There is so much left to be understood about all of these problems. Only a true analysis of the effects of redlining, destruction of family units during slavery, incarceration forissues like "vagrancy" can begin to see the purposeful, institutional destruction of the family.

But I think all of these issues, I truly believe this, had one goal in mind: to emasculate black men. There have been many ways in which this has been done, but it was deliberate and effective. The only way to get this back right is to give black men back their power. Not money or possessions. The power to know that the choice that they make can produce positive outcomes. The power to know that they (we) can change the world if we put our hands in the right hands.

The black family has been cut off at the head. The only way that the rest of the body will function is to put the head back in proper position.

Gerald Britt said...


I won't ever argue against the importance of the black man's leadership at home or in our communities! Both the fear and hatred of black males is behind much of the deconstruction of our communities.

We must also admit that we bare some blame for not doing better when we know better. When it comes to violence in our communities we can do far more to hold our people accountable for this miserable self destruction.

My point is that the simplistic reasoning that black male presence is THE solution isn't born out by the facts. It is a critical component to the solution (as are effective surrogates when a biological father cannot be present), but not the sole solution.

We have to address systematic systemic issues that rob our neighborhoods of their viability and vitaility. Those issues are economic, political, academic and environmental. And no matter how vigorously we can (and must) address cultural and communal issues that keep us from living free and responsible - we must vigorously address those issues that keep whole communities ensnared in poverty and it's ill effects...

Brad the Builder said...

Great article, very interesting