The Epidemic of Youth Violence: Connecting the Dots

The Trayvon Martin tragedy sparked a national outcry and tense dialogue around a host of issues: racial profiling, guns, excessive force and due process, to name a few. It also presented an opportunity for policy makers, practitioners and advocates to connect some dots – perhaps pulling our attention away from this one unfortunate incident, to look at the bigger picture. One set of dots is that the victimization of young black males, like Trayvon, is at epidemic levels in this country.  

Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 24. In testimony to the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, Stoneleigh Fellow Ted Corbin paints a stark picture of this group’s plight:  of the 1.5 million victims treated each year in hospitals nationwide for nonfatal gunshot, stabbing and other physical assault injuries, approximately 30%  are males of color. There were 2,916 homicides of black males in 2007. If we connect these dots to those of children from age 10-24 who were murdered in this same year, there were 5,764 - more than the number of people lynched in the century spanning from 1882 to 1982. 

Connecting the dots further, last year, there were 2,981 homicide victims among fourteen major cities in the United States.  Let’s bring these numbers home.  In Philadelphia, 75 percent of all homicides (230 persons) in 2011 were African American males. In a recent address, Mayor Michael Nutter echoed these statistics and gave an impassioned plea to make this crisis a national priority.  Nutter also pointed out that the number of homicides each year among this group has held relatively steady over the past decade.  Doing this math puts things in perspective:  over the last decade, upwards of 30,000 black males in this country  have died violently, dwarfing the number of lives lost in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.  

This is a crisis that permeates many of the issues we focus on at Stoneleigh. Since the Pulitzer Award-winning Philadelphia Inquirer series on violence in schools, we have actively sought how best to bring our foundation resources to bear on this issue.  We are hosting a symposium on this very topic next month.  We have connected the dots and know that children involved or at risk of involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are exposed to greater levels of violence and victimization at home and in their communities. The population of young black males dying at these alarming rates, by and large,is the same group of young people served by these and other child-serving systems.  

The Attorney General and Department of Justice are connecting the dots at the national level as well., The Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Initiative,mentioned earlier, is solely focused on examining children’s exposure to violence and advancing the most effective policies and practices to reduce and prevent this growing problem. The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, led by the Departments of Justice and Education in partnership with several other cabinet departments, has created a national platform to enhance the capacity of localities to more comprehensively (and strategically) prevent youth and gang violence by connecting community, law enforcement, faith-based, education and government stakeholders. 

And in his capacity as incoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Nutter is reaching out to mayors from across the country (and many other stakeholders) to launch the Cities United initiative, an effort to get mayors to make a stronger commitment to reduce the levels of violence among black males and boys in their localities. 

We applaud these efforts but there are still many more dots to connect. As we delve deeper into this issue, we are learning some important things.  First, youth homicides are preventable. We don’t have to live in a country in which nearly 3,000 young men of color die needlessly each year. The federal government has created a site to help connect to evidence-based, proven-to-work strategies to reverse homicide rates and reduce crime.  Second, there are a host of approaches that can be adapted to the local context, but most of these require that critical stakeholders connect their effort and genuinely and enthusiastically commit to change. These include  the mayors, police commissioners, District Attorneys, U.S. Attorney’s office, the courts, school districts, social service providers, funders and the faith community to name a few. At minimum, they should all be at one table, talking regularly. Third, and most important, without serious and committed leadershipat the local level, there will be little progress. Cities that have experienced success have had local leaders not just willing to champion the cause, but also facilitating the connections by conveningthe right people to tackle the problem and stay the course.

What we learned from Trayvon’s death is that people do care, enough to rally by the thousands across the country to demand justice. Most will concede that nearly 300 men of color dying each year in Philadelphia (and in other major cities) is at least tragic, if not unacceptable. We know what to do to save lives and make our communities safer, the challenge is whether we can commit to the hard work required to get it done.

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