Why we can't stop the killing

January 08, 1992

By the time city officials gathered last Sunday for the annual ceremony commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery, Baltimore had already witnessed its seventh homicide of the new year. The carnage prompted Mayor Schmoke to drop his prepared remarks and ask rhetorically, "Why are we killing ourselves like this?"

The vast majority of homicide victims in Baltimore are young and poor and black. A widely publicized study last year reported that homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, who die overwhelmingly at the hands of other young black men.

But while it was entirely appropriate to address the problem of black-on-black violence on the day commemorating blacks' emancipation from slavery, it also was somewhat misleading. "Can you imagine the hurt and anguish our ancestors feel looking down on us in 1992?" Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume asked the assembled crowd. Well, yes we can -- but no more so than we can imagine that of the ancestors of children living in, say, Medellin, Colombia, or any other other impoverished Third World city where similar conditions exist. It is not race or previous condition of servitude but the pervasive poverty and hopelessness under which people live that drive them to commit desperate acts.

Last month, Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly suggested the killings were evidence of a profound societal failure -- an idea echoed in University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson's theory that the social pathologies of the inner city are largely the result of a massive breakdown during the 1960s and '70s of key institutions that once nurtured and guided young people into responsible adulthood. Kelly called for re-establishing the primacy of basic moral values though the family, churches and the schools.

She is right, of course, but government's ability to lead has been hamstrung by state and local budget deficits and the huge deficit accumulated in Washington during the 1980s. Americans spent themselves so deeply into debt then that now they are virtually incapable of making the massive investments in education, health care and housing needed to prevent our cities from further descending into anarchy. In that sense, Congressman Mfume was referring to all Americans, not just blacks, when he summed up Sunday's message with a line borrowed from the cartoon strip "Pogo": "We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us."

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