The untimely death of 16-year-old Chicago honor student Derrion Albert unearthed the issue of black-on-black violence that continues to exist in most urban settings in America.
This high-profile killing, captured on a camera phone, has made the rounds through media, and once again black-on-black violence has re-entered the national discourse as a serious problem. The last time the issue drew this much attention was in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when a new lexicon of phrases – “endangered species,” “super predator” and “unsalvageable” — was employed to describe black youth.
President Obama, much like his predecessors, has taken a reactionary approach, sending Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder to Chicago and pledging federal funds to improve school security and fund more afterschool programs.
On the surface, this appears commendable, but those of us who understand the issue know that money will not solve the problem of black-on-black violence.
The problem has much more to do with black identity. When black youth draws their identity from a neighborhood, school or popular culture, it gives them a false sense of who they are. The identity of black youth should be rooted in African American culture, experience and history.
In Albert’s case, he was killed by youths from a rival neighborhood. Who would have thought that an outcome of desegregation would be black youth fighting and killing each other over school and neighborhood affiliation? Yet no one seems willing to take a serious look at this problem of identity.
The Holder approach is to mask the problem as not a “black, white, or Hispanic problem” but an “American youth problem.” This political premise is misguided and unfair to black youth, who for some time have deserved a special initiative by federal and state government to address the issue of black-on-black violence.
In this new political climate, where terms like “post-racial society” are used dilute the impact of structural racism, the issue of black youth violence must not be dismissed as simply an American youth problem.
To address this issue, we must start by acknowledging that an identity crisis exists in black America. Should black identity be defined by assimilation, as seen by Obama or Holder, or should it be defined by cultural icons such as Jay-Z or Ricky Ross?
These questions, along with a myriad of sociopolitical issues (drugs, single parent homes, poverty, etc.), ought to be the center of our debate and deserve serious and careful analysis before funds are allocated and conclusion reached about our children.
In the final analysis, we must raise a new set of questions regarding black youth violence and be willing to entertain radical solutions such as an Afrocentric curriculum or a year-around school schedule. Anything short of this will not bring real improvement.
Joseph L. Jones, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Johnson C. Smith University.