I am a father to two healthy young children. All the parenting clichés seem to ring true for me. They are truly the center of my universe, and I cherish each moment spent with them — even when I am sleep-deprived, largely because of them. When I learned of the killing of 7-year-old Xavier Usanga, I thought about my kids.
Xavier was only a day away from the start of the new school year. He was entering the second grade. I cannot begin to imagine what his parents and the rest of his family are enduring.
This summer, 11 children in the St. Louis area have lost their lives due to gun violence. The children, all under the age of 17, were taken from their families, loved ones and communities. Their deaths are even more gut-wrenching because they are senseless.
In response, the clarion calls to “stop the violence” and “we need to stop killing each other” echo from the street to yard signs, to barbershops and beauty salons, to our houses of worship and, of course, social media.
I would caution against such discussions because they resurrect the damaging, empty rhetoric surrounding the myth of “black-on-black crime.” These sayings are convenient, intellectually lazy, and dismissive tropes that become popular to lean on when black lives are lost.
Instead, to move forward as a city and a region, we must engage the sophisticated and insidious structures that created the current crisis.
My colleagues at Washington University and Saint Louis University provided a detailed road map to address these structural issues in the “For the Sake of All” report released in 2014. Of the recommendations listed, addressing violence as a public health issue that affects the quality of our neighborhoods is central to changing public policy. They cited the importance of dismantling housing segregation, asserting that “our region continues to be divided along lines of race and social class, and where you live has a considerable impact on your health.” That work continues today and serves as a model for national discourse about housing segregation, gun violence, and access to quality health care and public education.
To frame the deaths of children this summer as a problem of the “black community” is overly simplistic. It is a problem of the St. Louis region due to public policy that created inter-generational poverty and a whole host of ugly, destructive collateral consequences such as “red lining,” that we don’t want to think about.
The painful truth of the matter is that we don’t think of those 11 children as our collective children. The municipality or the section of the city a child is from should not hinder his or her ability to live fully and completely.
Commenting on the importance of the communal rearing of children, the giant of the American letters Toni Morrison once said, “Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why are we hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units – people need a larger unit.”
I agree with Morrison. People do need a larger unit. The same way that our city can unify and rally around a sports team, we need to come together and rally around our children.
For the Sake of All Report, Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University, 2014, 70.
Vernon C. Mitchell Jr.
Academic Engagement Programs Manager