URBAN JOURNAL: Facing facts on violence


Rochester is more than a decade into an epidemic of violence – a specific kind of violence: young black men shooting at, and too often killing, other young black men.

Can we talk about this?

If we can’t, we’ll never address it effectively.

From January 1 through June, Rochester had 22 murders. Most of them took place in the curving swath of the inner city known as the Crescent. Most of the victims were young black males. So, police say, were most of the killers.

The police will do what they traditionally do when the violence rate ticks up: put more resources into the Crescent, stop and question more people, clamp down on petty infractions. And that may help – for a while.

But it’s not a solution. It deals with the symptom, not the roots. The roots are in the joblessness and poverty that have developed, in highly concentrated form, in Rochester and in many of America’s inner cities. And it’s not news that joblessness and poverty have hit black Americans disproportionately hard.

Poverty itself doesn’t cause people to become violent. But Rochester, like many other cities, is dealing with multi-generational joblessness and poverty, says RIT criminal-justice expert John Klofas.

And black-on-black violence – young-black on young-black violence – is one of the results.

Clearly, black boys are not born with a propensity for violence. Most black boys don’t become violent. But a higher percentage of them engage in violent behavior than do white boys. And a higher percentage of them are killed on the streets of America’s inner cities, where poverty and unemployment are high.

I’ve heard some liberals suggest that young black men turn to crime because they have “lost hope.” That’s too facile an explanation. Black teenagers do not shoot other black teenagers because they’ve lost hope.

“Hope,” says Klofas, “implies some sort of expectation,” and hopelessness a loss of expectation. People who have a job and lose it may lose hope after years of fruitless searching. But if their children aren’t able to get jobs when they become adults, and then their grandchildren? The result, suggests Klofas, is “a blindness. You grow up without even an expectation.”

What we’re faced with is a problem of depressing complexity. Right now, Klofas notes, we have “a difficult economy, an educational system that doesn’t function very well,” generations of people with a poor education and few skills, and very few jobs for which they are suited.

We have, Klofas says, “completely failed to provide an avenue for people to have hope.”

To effectively stop the violence, to change the culture in which it is developing, will require changing the institutions that serve the families trapped in poverty: schools, housing, social services. That won’t be easy or cheap. Klofas and I both believe, for instance, that it will require giving families access to schools and neighborhoods that are not overwhelmed by poverty. Many of those schools and neighborhoods are in the suburbs.

But it will also require job training, job opportunities. Jobs. At a decent wage. Rochester hasn’t completely ignored this, but we offer nowhere near what will be necessary.

As low-skill, well-paying jobs have disappeared in America, nothing has developed to replace them. And as generation after generation have grown up jobless, and the employed moved out, inner-city poverty and unemployment rates have risen. And a culture of expectation – of employment, of stability, of a decent living – has been snuffed out.

This year’s murder rate isn’t the highest in Rochester’s history. But it’s unacceptable, and it’s rising. The police will try to do their job, which is to deal with the effect of the development of multi-generational poverty. That does not deal with the cause, though. We’re not even talking about the cause, or how to address it.

Most white mothers in Greater Rochester don’t worry that their sons will end up dead or in prison. Many African-American mothers do. That we permit that to happen is one of the most important moral issues of our time.




  1. Larry Champoux · · Reply

    Yes, Mary Anna, you are right, there are roots of this violence in joblessness and poverty, but I think that the obvious is so obvious, that we do not even notice it anymore. Young black men do not manufacture the guns that do the killing. They are not reaping profits from the steady stream of weapons into the streets of America. These young black men do not benefit from the big business of bullets. The sad fact is that a lot of white people get rich from this maiming and murder and what adds even greater desolation to this issue is that many of our politicians from all political parties are supported by the industry of this madness.

  2. Mary Anna I must respectfully disagree with your conclusion that hopelessness in the Black community is “too facile an explanation”. Perhaps you have not seen the face of hopelessness in the thousands of black males who the Department of Justice tells us are racially profiled every year; the hundreds of African American males who pass through our local special education system which the Council of Great Schools tells us is skewed against providing fair special education asessments to black and latino male students; the thousands of black males who the U.S. Department of Education recently told us are unnecessarily and disproportionally suspended from school; or the hundreds of thousands of black males who are disproportionally denied bail under circumstances where their white celll mates are granted bail. As a black male, former prosecutor, defense lawyer, civil rights and educator, I have personally witnessed and seen the face of hopelessness in the eyes of black men (professionals and prisioners alike) in the courtrooms, classrooms, and communities of this country. Beleive me it is real and has a definate impact on the choices which they make. And while the loss of hope may be a manifestation of a variety of underlying causes, the loss of hope (whatever its cause) does affect an individual’s capacity for reasoned and rational decision making. Irrational decision making and the consequences of those bad choices only excerbates the sense of hopelessness that these young men feel. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. once observed “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.” Many of these young men of which you speak have lost the will to “go on” and in their frustration have said “f@#k it”, “sc@w it”, or “forget it”. Accordingly, we (leaders AND these young men and their families) must take our share of responsibility for this sense of hopelessness which has overtaken our city and so many men and boys within it. To suggest that hopelessness is “too facile of an explanation” is to avoid a discussion of our respective roles in creating this sense of hopelessness and our collective responsibility for fixing it. I have recently written a book about this subject and my hope and prayer is that the book (F@#k It: Frustration In America) will begin a much needed dialouge about racism, responsibility, helplessness and hope.

  3. From Mary Anna:
    Van, I don’t think that an 18-year-old boy shoots somebody because he hasn’t been able to get a job, or because he’s “hopeless.” Based on what I’ve read, I think he has a specific reason for that shooting, varying, I assume, with the person and the victim. I worry that using “hopelessness” as a cause is relying on one of those squishy liberal sentiments that deflects serious discussion about the real cause, and the depth of that cause. That’s an argument over semantics, though. Ultimately you and I share the same concern: that ALL of us bear responsibility in this. It’s so easy (“convenient,” to use John Klofas’s word) to focus on the parents, or the kids themselves. We need to start talking about why a particular group of young people, born with the same potential, and to parents with the same hopes, end up killing one another.

  4. Mary Anna:

    You are correct that most young men do not shot somebody because they cant find a job. But they do enter the drug trade or do engage in violent activity because they’ve been kicked out of school; can’t find work; or don’t trust the police to protect them. When people loose trust in institutions and or, as Professor Klofas says, loose any expectation that those institutions or systems will deliver on their promises, they turn to other, “less suitable” pursuits and people. In short, if these kids have no expectation of justice from the criminal justice system they will take the law into their own hands; if our schools dont deleiver on their promise of educational equity and, in fact, deliver nothing but inequity, these young men will get their “education” from the streets. So I do beleive there is a direct coorelation between the violent pursuits of these young men and the actions (or non actions) of people or systems around them. However, in the final analysis, you may be correct it may be a difference in symantics. And that is part of the point which I make in the book. Our words mean very little when a young man says “F@#k It”. Our actions (including the actions of parents and the community) will matter most if we are to effectuate change in these young mens’ lives and their surrounding community. As always thank you for providing a thoughtful forum for the discussion of such an important issue.

  5. Van, you may be right – but I don’t think so. Seems to me if there really were such a direct connection between the violence and “no hope,” it would be easier to deal with. Not easy, but at least easier.
    Hopelessness, as John Klofas says, “implies some sort of expectation.” When that expectation isn’t there – an expectation that the justice system, the schools, the employers are on their side, when a young black man doesn’t even think of himself as a part of the same society as those institutions – there is a “blindness,” again to use Klofas’s words.
    It’s one thing to work on schools, the labor market, the treatment of young people by cops and the courts and then be able to convince young black males that these institutions and businesses do serve them. That these institutions and businesses are worth engaging with. Then we might stand a chance of creating both hope and expectation.
    But I think we’re much farther down the road than that. And I think it’s going to be much harder to reach those young men. Telling them, “Hey, now the schools are terrific, and the jobs are there waiting for you” may not do dip for a teenager who is completely disengaged.
    In the end, of course, an online debate about semantics between the two of us doesn’t matter. What matters is community action. I sure wish I saw some that would make a difference.

    1. With the revelations about the U.S. government’s ill-conceived and orchestrated “FAST AND FURIOUS” intentional arming of Mexican drug cartel thugs, I find it highly likely that they could even be supplying guns to the young black gangs in the U.S. in order to perpetuate the endless influx of prison/clients to enrich the prison system while creating the drug and violence culture that deceitfully justifies disarming EVERYONE under the guise of “protecting us from ourselves”. This is no different than the FDA allowing toxins and heavy metals in our MERCURYdental fillings and vaccines to trigger cancer and a host of neurological and autoimmune diseases inorder to ensure that there is an endless supply of sick, disabled, and dying patients willing to purchase toxic chemotherapy and other expensive pharmaceutical drugs for the rest of their miserable lives. The end (outrageous profits or disarming the citizenry) justifies the means (supporting the creation of disease or drug violence).Sad, isn’t it?

  6. Ms. Towler…I agree that young black men do not pick up a gun simply because they have lost hope. But we should note that neither do they pick up a knife or a club or a bow and arrow.

    The flood of guns in America provides that hopeless young black man with the ability to feel empowered, provides the mistaken sense that he has a more macho way to address his problems, and provides the opportunity for “instant gratification” in resolving those problems.

    Mao’s belief that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is applicable to countries other than China and to larger segments of a society than just politics.

    We can no resolve the issue of black on black violence without first removing the guns then we can repair a burning house without first putting out the fire.

  7. This is a horrible problem in our city! I think we need to look at the elephant in the room. We can talk about the deep rooted causes like poverty, but the immediate cause of this kind of violence is drug prohibition. If we were to end the failed drug war, we would see a drastic decline in violent crime and gang related crime. It was Prohibition that gave us Capone and Organized crime, and it is drug Prohibition that gives us the violence that we see in US cities. If we would take the first step and legalize Marijuana, we could bring an end to racist policing methods like racial profiling and Stop and Frisk programs. We could stop locking up thousands of young black male non-violent offenders, and turning them into hardened criminals.
    These common sense ideas will be ignored of course because Western NY’s Prison Industrial Complex thrives on locking up young black men, and we ignore the true cause of this kind of violence, Drug Prohibition!

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