Feb. 1, 2013, was one of the most moving and enlightening days of my life. I was at the NAACP Image Awards, where singer Harry Belafonte, 85, received an award for his nearly 60 years of civil rights activism. On an evening that was almost exclusively about celebrating achievements in the arts, Belafonte’s speech was both inspiring and sobering. “In the gun game, we are the most hunted,” he told the mostly black audience. “The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our black children. Where is the raised voice of black America? Why are we mute?”
The audience’s collective passion was movingly expressed by Jamie Foxx, who took the stage after Mr. Belafonte to receive his own award. His voice shaking slightly with emotion, Foxx said, “I had so many things I wanted to say, but after watching and listening to Harry Belafonte speak, sometimes I feel like somehow I failed a little bit in being caught up in what I do… But I guarantee you I’m going to work a whole lot harder, man.” It was an evening of such raw and honest passion that everyone left feeling elated by the eloquence and commitment of both men. And it was one of the only awards shows that felt more like a community coming together rather than a bunch of entertainers congratulating themselves.
But here we are almost three years later and gun violence in black communities continues to be a massive problem. African Americans are eight times more likely to be murdered than whites—1 in 5,000 versus 1 in 40,000. Between 2000 and 2010, gun-related fatalities for black people were double those of whites. Worse, gun-violence is the leading cause of death for black children and teens.
It’s a heavy burden to raise children who know that the color of their skin makes them walking targets. And gun violence isn’t just the immediate threat of bullets flying—it’s about the lasting effects that cripple the ability of the black community to protect itself and to heal from the damage inflicted.
Often overlooked are the survivors of gun violence who struggle to return to some form of normalcy. In New York City during the first half of 2012, 96% of gunshot victims, whether they survived or not, were black or Latino. Danielle Sered, the executive director of Common Justice, has been researching the differences in the government’s response to violence when the victim or shooter is white and when they are of color. Sered concludes that very little is done to help black survivors. In an interview with New Yorker journalist Sarah Stillman, Sered said that had victims Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, and Michael Brown—whose deaths launched nationwide protests—survived but been left with disabilities, “nothing” would have been done to help them adjust to their lives.
The constant threat of gun violence and the responsibility of caring for the many wounded victims has also taken an emotional toll on the black community. Studies reveal high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in poor, mostly African-American communities in large cities. Dr. Kerry Ressler, a lead researcher for the Grady Trauma Project, told ProPublica, “The rates of PTSD we see are as high or higher than Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam veterans. We have a whole population who is traumatized.” The long-term damage of PTSD to the black community can be more devastating than actual bullet wounds: sufferers can be more prone to violence and depression, have more trouble in forming relationships and in parenting, and find it harder to adjust to the work environment.
After the attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people, fear of terrorism rose to the number one concern among Americans. The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office to assuage public fear. That’s after a single attack on U.S. soil. But fear is a daily reality in black communities with high gun violence. Where’s the outrage? The demand for substantive action? The address from the Oval Office?
What happens in the ghetto stays in the ghetto. As if people of color live in a snow globe of swirling violence that affects only them. If gun violence were the leading cause of death among white children, as it is among black children, there would be a whole lotta shakin’ going on.
We are several generations away from overcoming the personal paranoia, irrational justifications and political greed that prevent even the most basic gun protections from being passed. If the fact that children and teens in America are 17 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in other high-income countries doesn’t convince us, nothing will. If the fact that the U.S. had the highest rate of gun-related deaths in the world doesn’t convince us, nothing will. If the fact that toddlers in the U.S. are shooting themselves and others at the rate of once a week doesn’t convince us, nothing will.
Poverty breeds violence. People with little or no hope of a secure future for themselves or to safely raise a family don’t have much investment in the values of those who do have hope and money. So, addressing the joblessness would be a high priority in decreasing gun violence. An announcement from the Oval Office that we’re intensifying our attacks on poverty to save lives, strengthen the economy and give hope to other Americans who need it now would be welcomed. More PTSD screening in hospitals and comprehensive treatment for all of those diagnosed would be welcomed. A judicial system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than retribution would be welcomed.
America is in the business of hope, but we have fallen short in supplying that service to many of those who need it most. And when hope has a showdown with the estimated 300 million guns in the U.S., I’m not sure hope stands a chance.