March 23, 2018
The CDC reports that within our nation’s cities black Americans are, on average, eight times more likely to be killed by firearms than those who are white. So shouldn’t their stories be central to the anti-gun violence movement?
When violence against boys and young people of color occurs—whether it’s interpersonal, community, or police violence— they are frequently portrayed as complicit in their own victimization in ways that white victims aren’t. “Sometimes the humanity is missing, and they become this statistic. For some, it’s like they’ve never done anything positive in their life. I see it as a binary. You either have this halo effect or this demonizing effect. There’s very little in the middle,” says Kimmi Herring, Director of the Brooklyn Community Program.
The recent surge in celebrity support and media coverage about gun control activism has been in response to a movement led by mostly white students. Yes, these amazing Parkland students have demonstrated incredible leadership in the face of fear and grief. We applaud them. And we need to acknowledge that black youth have been working toward many of the same goals as Parkland students for generations. Where was the sustained media attention, financial support, or most importantly, compassion, that their peers have recently received?
Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez agrees and recently tweeted, “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone.”
Paul Barrett, project manager for Safe Horizon’s Enhanced Service for Boys and Young Men of Color, offers some insight, “One key lever we can pull is to address our own internal biases that influence the ways that we respond. Our society’s response to the trauma that boys and young men of color experience is vastly different than our response to their white counterparts.”
Experiencing gun violence, including witnessing it or living in a community in which it happens frequently, can be traumatic and deserves an immediate response. However, young men of color are significantly less likely than other crime victims to seek or find the support needed to heal from these events.
Trauma-focused therapy is hugely helpful to recovering from experiences with violence. But first, it is essential to establish a safe environment. For many survivors of gun violence, this is not yet possible because their daily environment just isn’t safe.
“For some people, gun violence is becoming the new normal, and that bothers me a lot,” says Barbara Ellis, Director of the Bronx/Manhattan Community Program. “On the news, they’ll interview people who say, ‘Oh yeah I heard the gunshots,’ like it’s nothing,” Ellis says. “Many are not prepared to address the psychological impact of being a direct victim and of what goes on in their community. They have to go back to these same communities,” Herring adds.
At Safe Horizon, we host support groups for clients who have experienced gun violence themselves, or who have lost a loved one. “The greatest benefit is the reduction of isolation, bringing people together. You’re not alone. We’re providing an outlet and a forum for people to come together, share their experiences, provide tools to manage their grieving process,” Herring says. “For many, those trauma reactions are also survival reactions. They need to be hypervigilant. They need to look over their shoulders. Sometimes they need to sleep with one eye open,” Ellis adds.
D’Angelo McDade, a high school senior from Chicago who met with the Parkland students, said, “Many of our community members and young adults have established a sense of hopelessness and normalized the suffering that comes with gun violence. But they’re ready to see a change.”
A change, indeed, is needed. At Safe Horizon, we are working to change the narrative about boys and young men of color: to humanize their hurt and pain, and to strengthen our own services for them.
As this gun control movement continues, let’s be sure to include the experiences of boys and young men of color and communities of color. Let’s not deny their pain through racist framing, or treat it as an afterthought. Let’s see them as we see the Parkland students: worthy of attention and respect as they call for change, and deserving of policy responses that improve their safety.