By Michael Nutter Monday, July 29, 2013
Every death is a tragedy in this nation, whether in Pennsylvania, Connecticut or Florida. We all have suffered a great tragedy with the death of Trayvon Martin. But Trayvon’s story is only the latest in our epidemic of violence, compounded by race, that must be addressed in America.
Why is it that African-American males are so disproportionately both the victims and the perpetrators of violence, more often than not against one another? In Philadelphia, where I am mayor, 75% of our homicide victims are black men. About 80% of the people we arrest for homicide are black men. Black men across the country are killing one another, yet that epidemic is rarely part of any national conversation.
When Aurora happened, when Tucson happened and certainly when Newtown happened, we as a country launched a heartfelt conversation about gun violence, gun safety and the use of weapons. We lurch from tragedy to tragedy to tragedy, trying to figure out what to do along the way.
In the meantime, 32 Americans are killed by gun violence every day, on average, a disproportionate number of whom are black men. That’s apparently not breaking news. With each death, the networks aren’t interrupting game shows or soap operas to give you that information. We get lulled back into complacency and somehow live with the fact that we have a Newtown every day in America. And a disproportionate number of those dying are black men. That cannot be acceptable in the United States of America.
Our priorities are askew. Our leaders talk a lot about international terrorism. I often talk about domestic terrorists, by which I mean not foreign nationals plotting violence on these shores but the day-to-day crime that is even more devastating to our cities than the episodic threats from overseas. My focus comes from my experiences and the buildup of living all my life in West Philadelphia and Wynnefield, and as a city-council member and then later as mayor, attending numerous funerals and talking to moms and dads who have lost their children and other loved ones to senseless acts of violence.
What’s missing are the fundamentals. It’s about jobs. It’s about education. It’s about economic investment and job retraining. It’s about getting benefits to people who need them. We know that in Philadelphia, thousands of people are not even signing up for the available benefits to take care of themselves and their families. We know clearly that there are a few things that work: investing more in Head Start programs, summer jobs and programs for teens and community-development block grants for cities to put people to work. Those three areas have been cut significantly over the past few years. The U.S. seems to be more invested in nation building in other countries around the world, Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, than in nation building–or rebuilding–here at home.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and I co-lead an effort called Cities United. We now have close to 50 mayors signed up. It’s specifically focused on reducing the violence affecting African-American men and boys across the country. What does it propose? The first step is getting municipal leaders to acknowledge these challenges and then deciding on the best practices for addressing them. What are some programs and services we can provide? And what can we as mayors, in a more unified effort, do to change things? More and more mayors are getting involved in trying to address the cycle of violence in cities across the country.
If we get this right, everyone would be involved. We need a partnership among cities, states and federal agencies; the corporate community; the philanthropic community; the religious community; the social-advocacy community–all working toward helping African-American men and boys. We can no longer operate in silos. We have to work in a concerted, holistic and comprehensive effort to deal with these issues.
We are way past the time of just talking. What we really need is action. I know that President Obama cares about these issues, but as powerful as the President of the United States is, he will need a lot of folks to rally with him to work toward solutions. It will require folks to have open minds and open hearts and, more than anything, to be dedicated to change.
We can change things–that I know. The question is, are we ready to do it? Are we willing to set ego aside, be vulnerable and hear things that none of us necessarily want to hear? We have to try right now, because our children are dying in the streets every day.