Needed: action, not slogans

December 16, 1990|By Karin D. Berry

On Dec. 7, James Bias went to Washington to express his support for gun control legislation.

"I have to leave here," he said as he finished his testimony at an anti-gun conference, his voice breaking, "and go and bury my son."

The slaying of James Bias' son, Jay, on Dec. 4 came amid a flood of new statistics about the rising murder rate among black men. The federal Centers for Disease Control has reported that between 1984 and 1988, the homicide rate for black males ages 15 to 19 doubled -- from 38.5 to 76.8 per 100,000.

The death of Jay Bias attracted the same nationwide attention to random violence as the death of his older brother, Len, a University of Maryland basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, did to drug abuse. Jay Bias was shot twice in the back, police said, after arguing with a man who had accused him of flirting with the man's wife, a saleswoman at a jewelry store in Prince George's County.

More than 3,000 people attended his funeral service Dec. 8. Many mourners wore white pins depicting a black handgun with a red line drawn through it and the words "No More Handguns" printed on them.

On Dec. 10, 100 ministers marched to the Lincoln Memorial to protest violence and killings.

And as they protested, still another young black man was shot to death in Washington.

A life is snuffed out, families mourn, ministers lament the rising death toll, everyone agrees that the situation is out of hand . . . and yet the bodies pile up inexorably. Occasionally we are jolted by the statistics once again when another promising young person like Jay Bias is killed.

The sloganeering in the black community -- "Stop the Killing," "Us Killing Us = Genocide" -- simply lulls the outraged and takes the place of action that would actually reduce the homicide rate. The truth is that no one knows why the violence is escalating. Whole communities are paralyzed with fear. No one seems to know why black people are murdering one another or how to stop it.

As we mourn Jay Bias' death, the nation should rethink its attitude toward the high homicide rate among young black men.

I do not know why more black people are killing one another nowadays, but I am certain that their motivations for murder -- say, greed or anger -- are no different from those of white people. And I know that most murderers know their victims, and usually they are of the same race. So why is the focus on black-on-black violence? I have not heard of a black murderer claiming to kill another black person just because he was black.

No other racial group is singled out in this way. America occasionally becomes fascinated by white men such as John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, but no one asks what it is about being white that turns a white man into a serial murderer. And as spousal abuse increases all over the nation, no one ventures to question whether white men are on a rampage or to hold candlelight vigils over white-on-white violence.

No matter what the race is of a killer, a victim is just as dead, and the loss is just as painful.

I do not see any difference, and I believe that it is a mistake for the black community to allow the focus of the debate on how to lower the spiraling homicide rate to be on the race of a murderer. It lets the rest of America evade the effort of helping to solve the problem.

Guns are used in most homicide deaths among black men, yet no black man is a major manufacturer of guns.

There is not one black person in the Senate, nor do black representatives make up a majority of the House, which enacts laws on gun control, drugs and other matters that could help prevent more murders.

And black people do not run the gun lobby, whose rich, powerful voice is heeded over the pain of black people who have lost loved ones to violence.

The focus on the race of the murderer and victim reinforces the enduring stereotype of black people as innately criminal and unconcerned about human life. It implies that the only people who should care when black people die are other black people, that race contributes to the murder rate.

Most importantly, it puts the responsibility for solutions squarely in the lap of the black community, which cannot lower the murder rate on its own. It is America that loses its humanity when so many lives are lost to murderers.

Of course, there are solutions coming from the black community. In Chicago and Detroit, mothers whose children have been murdered have taken their pain and anger and turned them into power in a crusade among teen-agers against gang violence. In many of the nation's neighborhoods, black people have used patrols to throw the drug dealers out.

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