Digging up the Roots | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Digging up the Roots

When discussing the very difficult issue of violence, we find there are two types of people: those who don't care why criminals resort to violence, and those who get that preventing it can only come from attacking it at the roots. That is, we stop crime before it happens by trying to understand and fix why a young person takes that turn in the first place.

Yet, if you don't hold the clearly racist belief that young blacks are statistically more likely to commit crime because they're black, then logic dictates that we should seek out the reasons—and then change those conditions.

The Atlanta Black Star presented a compelling and unflinching "5 Reasons Young Black Men Resort To Violence" that circulated Facebook recently. In it, they quoted the late Dr. Amos Wilson, a Hattiesburg-born psychology professor and expert on black crime, who found that young black men resorted to crime due to a system that had "excluded and oppressed them for centuries."

"Personal responsibility is a factor, but understanding how the minds of young black boys have been negatively impacted by racial oppression may provide insight on what solutions will be effective in remedying the problem," Andre Moore wrote in the piece.

Here are the five reasons the piece gave; please consider with an open mind (and read to the end):

Slavery and Racial Oppression

Anyone who has a child or has been one, or who is the child of an alcoholic, knows that tough family issues can affect a child's self-esteem and chances for success. Now, imagine that your family descended from (recent) generations of oppressed people. It's hard to deny the clear truth that a history of enslavement, brutality, rape and disparagement of one's family can leave extremely deep scars.

"The trauma caused by this psychological brutality resulted in severe damage to the mind of the victims, which manifested as an identity crisis, self hate, low self worth, and a distrust of the world at large. This mentality has been passed down through generations," Moore's Atlanta Black Star post stated.

And those practices—and legal discrimination such as red-lining and job/education discrimination—led directly to the conditions of impoverished neighborhoods today: "low socioeconomic status, social deprivation, inadequate education, high unemployment, and the criminal industrial complex has reinforced this negative mentality," Moore wrote, backed up by scads of scientific research on the psychology of oppression.

Put another way, the hunted can become the hunters if we're not careful and proactive about changing the conditions caused by historic actions and brutality.


• Young people need to learn and appreciate the positives of their culture and history and people who look like them.

• It is important to teach difficult history not by shaming a child for not knowing it, but by making it interesting and relevant—such as by telling narrative stories that put the young person (or the adult) into the shoes of a slave or a Freedom Rider. Make it real and compelling for them, not judgy.

• Others should learn and understand the history of oppression in our state and nation—not to keep "apologizing for the past," but to help find solutions for the present and especially the future.

Being Devalued

It makes a lot of sense that young people growing up in devalued cultures then act in aggressive ways to try to command some sort of "respect"—even if it's a negative, violent kind. This is why it is so harmful for media and members of the larger community to make assumptions about children of color—or to apply double standards to them as happened in the Trayvon Martin case where his "self-defense" wasn't considered as important as that of his killer.

Experts find that cultural biases, often redistributed through skewed media coverage and obsession with reporting crime over positives in a community, contribute to the devaluation of a young person in his own mind, often leading to acting out or worse.

Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and expert on the criminal mind, wrote in Psychology Today that people who resort to violence often have "voices" (negative thought processes) that flood their minds, setting the stage for aggressive behavior.

"Understanding what is going on in the mind of someone who is violent allows us to better assess the risk for violence and to intervene, protecting both the potential perpetrator and victim," she advises. "Many risk factors for violence can't be changed, but a person's thinking is a risk factor that can be."

Dr. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine who specializes in the causes of violent crime, writes that being shamed is a major cause of violence. [P]eople resort to violence when they feel that they can wipe out shame only by shaming those who they feel shamed them. The most powerful way to shame anyone is by means of violence, just as the most powerful way to provoke anyone into committing violence is by shaming him," he writes.

Gilligan warns that traditional punishment of both children and criminals often induces shame, which in turn can make the receiver more violent. The violence is a direct reaction, he says, of the lack of self-love; his findings show that being aggressive is often a way to reclaim self-respect, or self-love.


• Firestone says violent people need to be taught what underlies their "tortured thinking" in order to better resist it.

• The larger community (including media) needs to work carefully to not promote biases against certain cultures—and to report at least many positives as negatives, starting with when crime has dropped dramatically among certain groups.

• Adults must mentor young people into pursuing and appreciating their own value, especially as part of a larger community. Don't assume young people are selfish; help them help others to increase their own self-worth.


This one is straightforward and seems commonsensical: "Feeling devalued in society creates self hate. Denied the love of others, a person's self-love, or soul, like money in a savings account, slowly but surely begins to wane," The Atlanta Black Star writes, referring to findings by Dr. Gilligan.

Young people, especially those in challenged communities, soak up the shame that the larger culture showers on them before they've even had a chance to do something bad. That pressure doesn't have the perhaps-intended effect of shaming young people out of trouble; it can affect their psyches and instill a sense of self-hatred in them. Put another way, if society doesn't expect them to be great, why should they believe they could be?

Most families know this is true of their own children: they need their parents and teachers to have faith in them and believe in their potential. Consider, then, how difficult it is for young people growing up amid a culture that expects them to mess due to their race or their neighborhood. Couple that with generations of a shaky family structure (see No. 1 above for a major reason), and these kids can get the shame inside their own homes and from the culture at large.

In turn, they "may develop false sense of pride or an over-inflated ego to compensate. Challenges to this exaggerated self-image cannot be tolerated by the individual who possesses it," the Black Star writes, referring to research by Firestone.

Kids saddled with self-hatred (through no fault of their own) often compensate by seeking an "aggrandized self-image." And, yes, that's where the worst behavior kicks in, often enabled by easy access to weapons.


• On a micro level, each adult needs to engage with helping kids get past self-hatred issues—by loving and trusting them (even, initially, in small ways).

• It is key to be interested in and find out how they're feeling rather than telling them how they ought to feel, therapist Rhoda Mills Sommers suggest on her website. This means non-judgmental conversation—and listening (a key to helping any adult or child).

• A young person needs passions and interests they can get into "flow" over; if you're mentoring a young person, find out what it is and help them do it.

• On a macro level, we all must work together to change the culture of shame. That means challenging our families, our neighbors and even media we consume to stop mis-representing children as "thugs"—especially those who justify the over-use of violence against them for relatively minor crimes.

• Watch your own stereotypes about what a young person might be interested in: Give a child the chance to choose dance over team sports, art over a business track, the violin over hip-hop—or vice versa.


"Social mistrust" contributes to violence among youth, especially those who grow up in communities historically mistrusted by society, a serious problem that is exacerbated by sensationalistic and biased media coverage. People who grow up in and then choose to live in divided communities that distrust the "other" contribute directly to this problem, the Atlanta Black Star reported. Social mistrust is a negative outcome from the perceptions that crime is "hopeless" in a community; such perceptions, in turn, fuel mistrust among residents and make it more unlikely that residents will believe that they can tackle the crime in their own communities. They're fearful, and lock themselves inside the house, for instance, rather than getting out into the streets and being active—which helps prevent crime, as well as presents positive, confident images to the kids of the community. It also can mean that the criminal element "wins."

Dr. Firestone warns about people assuming "a self-protective and defended posture from a perceived danger. Because the paranoia and misperception makes the threat seem real, people feel justified in acting out violence to protect themselves." This can cut both ways: Young people feel continually mistrusted and under attack so they might as well act out; and those who fear young people are more likely to respond to their fears with excessive violence (as in the Quardious Thomas shooting that the JFP featured last issue. See jfp.ms/quardious.) That, in turn, continues the mistrust/violence cycle, leaving no end in site—only more violence.

The Atlanta Black Star reported that research shows the long history of white supremacy, and the violence that kept it in place, has had a devastating effect on many African Americans, leading to self-hatred and distrust, which feeds the violence cycle. "This distrust is also prevalent among black youth, who sees his black peers through the eyes of his oppressor—someone who is different and not to be trusted," it added.

This problem isn't likely to be healed overnight, but it's one that must be tackled for us to have hopes of making young people safer, and more trusting and secure.


• In mentoring situations, adults can use their experiences and stories to convey trust to young people, as well as ensure that positive images of successful youth and adults are used to inspire them.

• Show them trust; don't assume they can't be trusted.

• Diversity in all components of society is key to reversing these tendencies: People need to see and feel how other people live and the challenges they face.

• Every person should challenge stereotypes in other adults and children. If you and your children live in non-diverse settings, be sure to reach across lines in every direction possible, regardless of your situation.

• Adults, even those who have had negative experiences with members of a certain group, including the majority culture, need to put that aside and teach young people to deal with others as human beings, not as a stereotype, in order to squelch the social mistrust that often leads to violence.

• Teach constantly, reaching through your comfort zone.

Violent American Society

This may be the toughest problem: violence begets violence. We live in a city where police do not seriously investigate the killing of an unarmed young man allegedly breaking into a car. Many justify lethal force against petty criminals. A man with Alzheimer's and a teen girl seeking help in a white suburb were gunned down. Not to mention our own state's violent history of enforcing white supremacy.

The Atlanta Black Star doesn't mince words on the challenges young people of color inherited: "Black people have been inculcated by a violent experience that includes white mob violence, lynching, slavery, suffering and death.  The history of violence against black people is so horrific as to be almost beyond belief. ... The violence we see among our Black youth is an emulation of the cultural ways of their oppressor." It added that psychologist Amos Wilson called internalizing the ways of the oppressor is called "intropression."

Acknowledging this rather obvious truth does not need to mean excusing the violence that results from historic oppression and the other issues above. But it does mean understanding why the violence may be happening in the first place—and where the cycles came from.

If we can do that, it makes it easier to engage if less shaming and blaming and, instead, embrace solutions that can make the community over all safer. It can also, with any luck, replace the wild and usually false rhetoric about communities of color being "more violent," which historically simply is not true.

Instead, we can get past assumptions about the "other," mentor more, have rich and informative conversations, and take more seriously the need for more-than-adequately funded schools and other programs that help lift young people out of the cycles they were born into.

SOLUTIONS: Learn and use history. Insist that the state put symbols of past oppression into museums for educational purposes, not on flagpoles sending the message that the old hierarchies are still in place. Challenge false beliefs about certain people being more "prone" to violence, and insist that laws are created and enforced that do not encourage rogue violence disguised as "self-defense." Limit the violent media kids soak up and avoid glamorizing firearms and other violent weapons. Teach children to always value human lives overmaterial things. Model love.

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