Pretending the grotesque firearm violence that disproportionately affects young black men is not everyone’s problem does a disservice to the ideals that made America great.
On Jan. 10, the Advertiser’s headline screamed “Death by Gun” and showed pictures of the 17 Lafayette residents whose lives were ended by a bullet in 2015. Among the victims were Jillian Johnson and Mayci Breaux who had the bad luck to be in the Grand 16 at the same time as a deranged drifter. Johnson and Breaux were the most celebrated victims, along with UL psychology student Claire Walley, who was murdered by her boyfriend. With one exception, the rest of the victims were black and unknown, uncelebrated and unmourned by any but close friends and relatives.
Particularly poignant was the case of Dravin Stevenson, 18, who was shot only two months after serving as a pall-bearer for his basketball teammate at Northside, Jo-Nathan Delacroix, himself killed in what was termed an “accidental shooting” — just two kids playing with a gun they thought was unloaded. Chillingly, another “accidental” shooting occurred at the event held to benefit Delacroix’s family.
Seventeen victims, 13 black — the tribute exacted from a culture that makes gun ownership easy, celebrates individualism and glamorizes violence and retribution. The 17 killings in 2015 were a high-water mark. Numbers in previous years were lower: 10 in 2014, 12 in 2013 and 13 in 2012. How do these figures compare with other Louisiana cities and across the nation?
There were 71 homicides in Baton Rouge in 2015, up from 63 in 2014, nearly all gun deaths. Sixty-one of the 71 victims were black and, charted on a map, clustered in the largely black neighborhoods close to Interstate 110 and Downtown Baton Rouge. Perhaps not surprisingly, Louisiana leads the South in black homicides. According to a report by the Violence Policy Center, Louisiana’s rate of “black homicide victimization was 25.75 per 100,000” while the “national overall homicide victim rate for victims of any race was 4.50.” Separate minorities out from the mix and the “national white homicide rate was 2.65 per 100,000 people,” according to Emily Lane’s Jan. 13, 2015, Times-Picayune story, “Louisiana has 5th highest black homicide victimization rate.” In short, a black person in Louisiana is very much more likely than a white person to fall victim to gun violence and be murdered.
What does this easily documented reality mean for public attitudes and policy concerning guns and violence? Mostly, it means that nothing happens as the vast majority of the carnage is located in the black community. Likewise, Louisiana’s prisons hold disproportionate numbers of black prisoners, husbands and sons, mothers and daughters. If white America saw its sons and daughters killed or sent to prison at the rate prevalent in black America, there would be a robust movement to reform the system and address the issues. But since these twin tragedies predominately affect black people, the voices calling for reform are few and largely ineffectual. Most people, including our leaders, speak and act as if it’s not their problem. Maybe it isn’t, but what about the families torn apart by this endless epidemic that leaves young men dead on the streets of our city and in every other city in the U.S.? Are these not our families too? Are these not Americans? Why is this not our problem?
I recently read Between the World and Me, a best-seller by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, in which a father warns his son that violence and incarceration have long been used to manage and control black youth in America. What is startling about Coates’s wildly popular book is how similar his analysis is to Baldwin’s, despite the 50 years separating the two books. What hasn’t changed in the intervening 50 years: the horrendous levels of violence in black America, the expanding penal archipelago and the myriad dangers facing young black men.
The hard truths underlying the violent reality of black America are not obscure or recondite. On the contrary, they’re easy to establish, merely a click or two away. Given this, why is so little being done to address this harsh reality? Why aren’t legislators, who generally love to legislate on every topic imaginable, rushing to address this issue? The answer, in short, is because they, along with most white Americans, have found it convenient to “look away” and say, “Well, it’s not happening to my son or my daughter, or in my community.”
But really, it is. Black Americans are our sons and daughters and they live in our communities. There is no “them.” There is “us.” Any distinction otherwise is racist and unsuited to our ideals, our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We must accept responsibility for the carnage plaguing our communities and take steps to address it, to prevent it, to heal the gap between the perception of who is, and who is not, one of us. Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again,” but we can’t be great, either again or ever, until we address the brutal racism of our criminal justice system and the appalling violence disproportionately affecting black communities.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, "Bayou to the Beltway," which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.