Web Posted: 01/01/2009 12:00 CST How one lives, dies matters
How you die, and the things you were doing that lead to your death, can sometimes be how you're remembered if your manner of death speaks to how you lived. Did you die defending your family from attack? Did you die rushing to the defense of a stranger? Did you lose your life in service to your country? Did you fall while leading protests against injustices? Was your voice stilled because you raised it against corrupt power? Did you become a martyr to a cause greater than you that, because of your work, will make the world better?
Or: Did you die because Ray-Ray said something to disrespect you, so to salvage your self-respect you reached for your illegally obtained gun hoping to find your manhood in its barrel but — oops, your bad — Ray-Ray was quicker on the trigger with his illegally obtained gun that carried his manhood in its barrel?
Did you die while doing a drive-by on someone's house when someone in the house fired back? Did you take your last breath because you were attacking an innocent and they fought back or because you and your gang were dueling another gang over territory that neither of you owned and on which not one of you ever paid a dime of taxes?
How we die, and why we die, was brought to mind this week by a new report out of Northeastern University by two criminologists showing that, despite a national reduction in overall crime and the murder rate, homicides among black male teens between the ages of 14 to 17 rose significantly. From 2002 to 2007 the number of black males in that age group who were accused of murder increased 43 percent while the percentage of that group who were victims of murder rose 31 percent. In San Antonio, between 2000 and 2007, the number of young black males between the ages of 14 and 24 accused of homicide escalated 38 percent.
Nationwide, guns are used in 85 percent of these crimes. This is fratricide of frightening proportions. What's clear is what the late rap star Tupac Shakur, himself a victim of gun violence, decried more than a dozen years ago when he pleaded,
“Use your brain! Use your brain!
It ain't THEM that's killing us, it's US killing us
It ain't THEM that's knocking us off, it's US that's knocking us off!”
Two years ago here in San Antonio, a grieving father whose son, while not in a gang but killed by gang members, said, “It's a lot of foolishness, a lot of young black men dying for nothing. My son dead for nothing.”
It is over a lot of foolishness and over a lot of nothing, but it's foolishness and a nothing that has fatal consequences. The suggestion in the Northeastern University report and the subsequent discussion about it is little different from other important reports and studies. It's not that we don't know what needs to be done.
Those who inflict wounds and fear on their communities must be punished harshly and never allowed to be in a position to cause any more harm. But the greater mission is to do the things that prevent that kind of behavior.
We can say that it all begins at home, and that's true. But where there are failures at home is where the rest of the community should be there for support. We can never have enough after-school programs, community centers, mentoring and tutoring programs by organizations and businesses, community policing and help for schools so that teachers aren't expected to carry a larger burden than they do when it comes to helping troubled or neglected children.
And we need more from houses of worship.
Some of these life-changing and -saving solutions will cost money. Some will cost time. All will cost a great amount of interest.
Most black male teens, like most black youths and like most Latino and white youth, aren't threats to society and are doing the right things. And there are countless organizations and individuals working hard to help these young people develop the talents they can contribute to their community. Early in this New Year, I'll be writing about two new ventures — one involving books and reading, the other involving baseball — that have tremendous potential to help not just black male teens but any youth who will avail themselves of the opportunities.
But for those youth who pose a danger not only to each other but to the innocent young people doing good things and to the rest of us, we must let them know that we won't allow them any more to bring us down to their dark and lost ways.
They must learn before it's too late that there's no honor in dying like a thug and no glory in murdering like a coward. If it's not too late, maybe they can learn about those things of timeless value and inestimable worth and priority that are worth dying for. Once they understand that, then they'll know that those things are also worth living for. Cary Clack's column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To leave him a message, call (210) 250-3486 or e-mail him at [email protected] How one lives, dies matters