What does it say about us as a community, as a nation, that a 16-year-old killing a 13-year-old no longer has the capacity to shock? Sadly, teens killing teens – make that black teens killing black teens – has become so commonplace, so expected, that even the families of the victims speak with resignation when it occurs.
“Sometimes, the good die young,” said the father of 13-year-old Khalil Malik Cousart who police say was killed by his 16-year-old friend, Damien Wright.
The shooting Tuesday was the fourth shooting death of a black teen in Charlotte this year – the third in the last five weeks.
Let me be clear. Black teens – black males – aren’t the only teens killing each other. And most black male teens are not involved in crime or violence.
Yet, the facts are indisputable that black male youngsters are disproportionately perpetrators and victims of violence.
Some will take those facts as an opportunity to demonize those youngsters as simply thugs deserving of their fate. And because these kids are black, some who harbor racial animus will look at their deaths as welcome ethnic cleansing.
I’m hoping most people are like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who I heard give an impassioned talk a couple of months ago about the value of black men’s lives and make an urgent plea for all of us to get involved in ending this “epidemic” – his word – of mayhem and death.
Last year, Landrieu launched the Saving Our Sons campaign aimed at reducing the murder rate in the Big Easy. Landrieu understands that the future of his city is tied to tackling aggressively the crime that is ravaging it. That can’t happen if people in his city – whites and blacks – write off a segment as unsalvageable.
And by not addressing this issue head-on and treating it like the public health issue it is, Landrieu – who is white – says we are giving in to the “evil notion” that black men’s lives have little or no value. Landrieu’s SOS plan aims to empower local communities to seek cultural change, and to provide other strategies to help. “We have to recognize that violence is a disease and that we have a public health crisis on our hands. We have to interrupt the transmission of violent behavior.”
These are the same kind of sentiments I’ve heard from Dr. David Jacobs, associate medical director of the F.H. “Sammy” Ross Trauma Institute at Carolinas Medical Center. For the last few years, he has pulled together an important violence prevention conference in Charlotte. The theme of the 7th annual gathering this past March was the race disparity in killings and injuries from violence in this city. In 2011, blacks accounted for 58 percent of Charlotte’s homicide victims.
Jacobs told me that in order to address this issue effectively, we’ve got to start tackling the factors that “prime the engine” for violence in black males. Those factors include poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, and a feeling of being disrespected. These socio-economic and cultural conditions pull black males toward violence, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says guns play a role as well. As far back as 1993, CDC officials have urged that gun violence be considered a public health issue. Guns are used in two-thirds of homicides, according to the FBI. About 9 percent of all violent crimes involve a gun – roughly 338,000 cases each year. More than 73,000 emergency room visits in 2010 were for firearm-related injuries, the CDC estimates.
It’s hardly a surprise a gun was used to kill 13-year-old Khalil. Kids in his neighborhood told reporters most kids in the community had guns or access to one.
Ending such easy access to guns for young people must become a bigger priority nationwide. But Landrieu’s broader SOS is one that needs to be sounded here, and this community needs to respond. Yes, the good die young – but too many of the young are dying needlessly and foolishly. As a community – and as communities – we should not expect it or accept it.