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Merry Christmas: Race, Guns and Mental Illness

December 24, 2012

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I woke up to some devastating news on this Christmas Eve: Black youth account for nearly 85 percent of teens charged as adults in the Baltimore region. Of course, today is as good a day as any to bring attention to this largely ignored issue. We ignore and accept this unfortunate reality because, by and large, African Americans (particularly black men) are still viewed as violent threats to society.

Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, we’ve started a (better, slightly more nuanced) dialogue about gun violence and mental illness, but we’ve sidestepped an essential truth about gun violence in America: it is unequally distributed and young black and Hispanic men residing in inner cities bear the brunt of its consequences. In 2008 and 2009, the leading cause of death among young black men was gun homicide–at a rate 8 times higher than young white men. And, yes, most homicides of young black men are perpetrated by other black men, but intraracial homicide is not unique to the African American community–something we have a tendency to forget.

As argued by Michele Goodwin, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, there is a public health dimension of gun violence that we must confront. Through this lens, it can be argued that there is no greater epidemic as it relates to gun violence than in our inner cities. Philadelphia magazine recently reported that Philadelphians suffer similar psychological trauma as people in Afghanistan and Rwanda, trauma that can produce people who are “emotionally numb” and “indifferent to the value of life.” It’s a vicious cycle that precipitates more violence.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, we’ve been afforded an opportunity to reflect upon mental illness and gun violence more vigorously and intelligently than before; let’s not forget to explore the (visibly) invisible racial dimensions as well, and how psychological trauma contributes to everyday acts of violence in our cities.

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