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Commentary: Sarah Billingsley-Walker and the 'culture of violence'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2012 - Earlier this month, Sarah Billingsley-Walker — 18, a Vashon High School honors student, homecoming queen and co-valedictorian — was murdered, strangled to death allegedly by her “sometimes boyfriend,” 17-year-old Leonard Johnson.

One promising young life brought to an abrupt end. Another permanently altered because murder was an ill-chosen option. Two more statistics in a city widely considered the deadliest in the country. Another indictment on us all.

There is something seriously askew in a society in which children turn to murder to resolve disputes. It makes no difference if these are gang- or drug-related or if a young person decides to use a gun to rectify bullying at school. When a child kills it’s an indictment on adults, especially when we are acutely aware of the factors that decrease the odds of youth violence.  

News of a young black person’s death by murder isn’t even jarring these days. Some people shake their heads sadly while others condemn out-of-control youth or absentee parents. Most write it off as part of the equation of inner-city living.

Last year, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jesse Bogan wrote about young blacks caught in what he described as the “culture of violence.” His observation was sparked by the shooting of 16-year-old Jade Hamilton and the fact that 9 out of 10 homicides in St. Louis involve black males under age 30.

The word “culture” gave me pause. It’s hard to address or reverse culturally based habits. Think Muslim, Italian or Hispanic culture — ingrained and built upon hundreds — if not thousands of years of societal and familial conditioning.

Connecting violence with black culture is not a 21st century phenomenon. As author Tom Burrell notes in "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority," whites as far back as the Colonial era relied on the myth of inherent barbaric and brutish black behavior to justify slavery and racial subjugation. Emancipated slaves portrayed as lascivious, murdering marauders in the 1915 cinematic sensation, "Birth of a Nation," served as propaganda that justified the murderous activities of the Klu Klux Klan.

Defining violence as a cultural attribute underscores subtle and not-so-subtle racist ideology that dismisses and misdiagnoses legitimate black culture. What’s more, it inappropriately places violence as an insurmountable condition of black life.

Bogan’s article revolved around the rise of violent black gangs in the region. Gang violence is nothing new to America. The film “Gangs of New York” documents a mid-19th century period of brutality and death between Irish immigrants and so-called “Natives" (those born in the United States). In the late 1800s, some Irish, German, Jewish and Polish immigrants belonged to violent and murderous gangs who terrorized communities and fought constantly amongst themselves. Italian immigrant gangs morphed into the Mafia, which was responsible for thousands of gang-related deaths and murder all over the country in the 20th century.

History does not define the mayhem and chaos instigated by Irish, Jewish, German, Polish or Italian gangs as “cultures of violence.” Violence was never considered a permanent attribute. In fact, history teaches us that ethnic gang-violence was abetted when those immigrants assimilated into mainstream society. If we are honest, we have to acknowledge that skin color made such assimilations easier for those with white skin. What fuels black and Latino gang violence in America is generational poverty, unemployment and race-based barriers to full assimilation in America.

Classifying black gang violence as "cultural" legitimizes institutional, short-sighted and biased deterrents such as juvenile detention centers and the prison industrial complex. With blacks and Latinos comprising the majority of inmates in these facilities, it is incumbent upon adults outside those systems to intervene.

We have no excuses when we know that mentoring, job training programs and early education endeavors such as Head Start decrease the odds of minority youth becoming gang members. Pity the populace that turns a blind eye to poverty and lack of opportunities that blocks assimilation and guarantees a permanent black and brown underclass.

A cash-strapped country can ill-afford to keep locking up its problems. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, tax-payers will pay between $3 million and $6 million for every young person’s lifetime of crime. Surely there is a better, more holistic way to use those resources.

Aggressively addressing negative generational trends such as poverty, chronic unemployment, high school dropout rates and ingrained biases is feasible. But we will never get to that place of compassionate redress if we continually define violent deaths of black and minority youth as an inherent condition.

Sarah Billingsley-Walker -- an honor student and homecoming queen -- tragically lost her life. The “culture of violence” mentality ensures there will be more youthful black perpetrators of deadly crime. With a “culture of caring” mindset, however, we can ensure that black youth violence, like the violence of other ethnic groups, will be relegated to the pages of a bygone era.

Sylvester Brown Jr. is the founder of the When We Dream Together organization, designed to revitalize urban areas.

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