JACKSON I do not want to re-live my childhood.
As a kid and teen I experienced, in my estimation, pretty much all the trauma I needed: moving, divorce, money worries, peer pressure, teen angst, self-doubt and run-ins with authority.
But ultimately, I was always secure. We had food; my neighborhood was safe to play in and travel around. When I was a teen, I could ride my bike or moped to school and, later, I had a pretty awesome big red convertible my uncle sold me for cheap (if I could get it running) to get to part-time work and after-school activities.
My family had housing and transportation and medical care, and people would hire my parents to work and pay them well.
Drugs were around at school and acquaintances' houses, but they weren't forced on me. I could decide whether they were "my scene" or not; no one in my neighborhood, as far as I knew, was a drug dealer. (OK, maybe this one guy.)
And when a member of our "crew" got caught stealing or trespassing or wrecking a car or smoking something behind a building—or got in enough trouble that he found himself in the back seat of a police car—the result always went something like this: (a) Our parents were called, and (b) we were driven home. Sometimes somebody's mom or dad came to pick us up. Once or twice someone had to be bailed out of jail by an angry parent and then appear before a judge for a scary moment or two.
The education was good, and access to the outdoors and afterschool programs was great. The elementary school across the street where I attended through third grade didn't have enough students by the time I was a teenager, so they turned it into a rec center with football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, arts-and-crafts lessons, theater and so on.
I had fun as a kid, I had freedom as a teenager; I had good role models as parents; when I was old enough I could get a decent job in food service and have some walking-around money.
I wasn't a bad kid, I guess, but I wasn't always good. And, while I was a "smart" kid with fine grades and a National Merit Scholarship, that didn't keep me from doing some stupid, stupid stuff.
I was a kid.
And here I am now, a (reasonably) upstanding, tax-form-filing, mortgage-paying, business-owning, payroll-check-writing citizen.
On the JFP's website under previous stories in our team's "Preventing Violence" series (see jfp.ms/preventing violence), I've seen what I would describe as some tepid attempts to "find someone to blame" for the plight of the young men Donna Ladd has talked to and written about.
One commenter tried blaming the free- and reduced-lunch program. Maybe if the families of these young men Donna interviewed had to pay for school lunch, they wouldn't have money for drugs. (Really.)
In reference to the story Donna told about young boys breaking into a school to steal laptops, another commenter said, "What about the short jail time, apparently, for such a crime?" (Note: The boys, aged 9 and 11, had gotten into the school but failed to find any laptops to take. This guy's plan: Put them in jail longer.)
Over the past two years, I've had the opportunity to attend some intense workshops on issues of race equity and ethnicity in America, and I've had a chance to ponder structural and institutional racism. In that time, I've come up with a phrase that I want some white people to read and consider: "It may not be your fault, but it is your problem."
It's not a perfect phrase, because I don't want to suggest that the dominant culture or the status quo isn't culpable for the past. People of color might read that and get mad at me, saying folks are getting off too easy.
And some white guys (it'll mostly be guys) who believe they haven't "personally oppressed anybody" and "get along with everyone at work" will say "Wha-wha-what??! It's not MY PROBLEM."
My answer: Yes, it is. And trying to attack the problem exclusively through blame is an abdication of your responsibility as a citizen of the community, an American and a human being.
Here's the deal: Can you imagine having post-traumatic stress disorder because of your childhood?
I don't mean because of one particular traumatic incident, which would be bad in its own right. I mean because of pretty much the whole damn childhood.
Sometimes you have nothing to eat. And you're just a kid.
Sometimes your parents are there. Or they aren't. Or they're wasted. Or they're in jail. Or they're depressed.
Houses are falling down in your neighborhood, but at any point, someone might come out of one of those ramshackle buildings when you're walking home from school or band practice or work and threaten you in some way, perhaps with a gun.
See a cop car? Do you get a positive or negative feeling? Fight or flight?
Dad comes home or doesn't come home. Which feels better?
A teen brother dies. A best friend is killed in the streets. Most everything on the nightly news—most every night—is about how people who look a whole lot like you are getting shot or getting in trouble or rotting in jail or are considered the problem. You're called a thug.
And. You're. A. Kid.
In the BOTEC report that Donna and reporter Tim Summers Jr. reference in their cover story on pages 15-22, the report writers say of their directive from the attorney general: "Rather than dwelling on the incendiary issue of who is to blame, the OAG has asked us for solutions that could interrupt the status quo, which currently generates an intolerably high crime rate."
Now that's a plan. It doesn't mean ignoring crime or violence or failing to question the system or avoiding hard truths or not challenging and helping families to do more. What it does mean is having an open mind, being empathetic enough to understand that some people have it harder than you and repeating every so often to yourself, "There but for the grace of God go I."
It may not be your fault, but it is your problem. It's our problem. And so far, solving problems seems to be pretty much our saving grace as a species—which is a good thing considering how many problems we create. Let's get to work.
Email Todd Stauffer at [email protected].
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