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How Boys Are Raised To Kill
Common, handgun homicides in the United States are products of traumatized young boys who cope with regular violence by emulating it.
Initially I was going to talk about Oakland’s crime issues but I think this crime conversation isn’t unique to Oakland. An amalgamation of criminology research finds that about 5% of the criminal population accounts for 50% to 90% of violent crime. A Swedish study found that just 1% of the criminally-convicted population accounted for 60% of violent crime. Just 500 people drive 70% of D.C.’s gun crime and the largest share of shootings are over interpersonal conflicts. The vast majority of violent crime is committed by habitual re-offenders. These people often suffer from a variety of untreated mental illnesses, trauma and behavioral issues stemming from early childhood development.
There’s also a big elephant in the room seldom discussed: 79% of violent crime (excluding homicide) in the U.S. is committed by males, who are only half of the population. 88% of know homicide offenders in the U.S. are men. While media and culture discusses at length how criminals are racialized and impoverished, there is very little attention paid to gender. The vast majority of poor people don’t commit crime and Black women’s homicide rate is lower or equal to their proportion of the population. Thus, while focusing on the race of offenders excites right-wingers and focusing on offenders being poor excites left-wingers, gender is the big elephant in the room.
A prominent cause of young male aggression and historically high crime was childhood exposure to lead-infused car exhaust. The introduction of unleaded gas has been the most prominent variable to explain the significant crime decline of the 1990s and 2000s. Growing research now indicates that exposure to toxins and exhaust spewed by automobiles, trucks and industry, is linked to aggression and violence in young, developing boys.
Black neighborhoods are usually plagued with freeways and industrial factories. The proximity of Black neighborhoods to polluting industry was caused by redlining which prohibited Black people from living in clean environments up until the Civil Rights Act. The prevalence of freeways was a deliberate decision by urban renewal agencies to bulldoze historic Black neighborhoods for freeways to serve suburban commuters. The children who are raised in these neighborhoods are extremely susceptible to being developmentally-impaired by air pollution like that which is very common in West Oakland and East Oakland around I-880, causing higher rates of aggression among youth.
But it’s not just a pollution issue causing mental impairment, it’s also cultural, as the gender breakdown is too stark to ignore. Conservatives are somewhat correct that crime is more cultural than just a left-wing material analysis suggests, but their solutions explicitly deny any material improvement in the form of welfare and ignores modern, medical science for religious substitutes and more police officers.
Rhetoric like bad-mouthing single-parent households doesn’t work to reduce crime or clean up communities from harmful toxins. It’s also just stupid. Single parents raising their children, often away from abusive partners, should be commended and supported financially and socially, not demonized. While greater police presence is demonstrably linked to less violence where patrols are located in research, when communities like Oakland have police starting salaries at over $100,000, relying on a groundswell of cops to deter crime becomes an expensive and fiscally irresponsible solution.
The police are needed to respond to violence in progress and after its occurred, but they can’t and won’t solve our social issues where the conditions for violence begins. Police cannot solve the masculinity problem we’re facing that informs daily violence such as road rage, shootings, assault and anti-social behavior. Moreover, communities that are low in violent crime in Oakland such as the hills and northern neighborhoods, are not swollen with police officers. People should critically think about why that is.
I was privileged enough to be raised in both a low income and middle income environment, and now I reside in a high income environment. All the while in a household that was comfortably middle class. I was able to contrast the ways low income boys vs. middle and high income boys develop their masculinity. The crime problem for the small few offenders begins very early in their life.
I spent my afterschool in high school at a downtown Oakland radio station called YouthRadio. This sweethearted Black boy who went to a school downtown would stay at the radio station long after most of us had gone home. He made a film documentary about his life that he screened for us at the station where he revealed that he was too frightened to go home to his Deep East Oakland apartment because of violence.
A specific clip I still remember seeing was when he hid among his bedroom blinds and filmed two men arguing at each other in the parking lot while one holds a pistol as their side. While filming, the teen whispered to the camera what we were seeing, “He’s got a gun. They’re about to start shooting.” The movie jumps, male voices are heard shouting, and then several shots ring out.
My friend group consisting of mostly Black, Asian and Latino kids from a variety of class backgrounds had two reactions to this film that we discussed in school the next day. Two low income Black kids laughed at the film, and one of them remarked that he was weak for being bothered by the shooters. The teen boy, who would proudly refer to himself as a “savage” and would regularly brag about his incarcerated father, said between laughter, “Bro, that’s where I’m at out east. That’s how it is every day. Who cares? What’s he crying about?”
My middle class Black friends liked these kids as friends but we simplistically dismissed their actions as ghetto and unlike ourselves. Now as an adult I look back and see that both of those kids were the victims of severe, untreated trauma that perpetuates into violence as adults. He used to talk a lot about guns he supposedly was bringing to school. He bragged about stealing; he bragged about beating people — including women.
He wasn’t evil. He was just a traumatized child set up to fail. He and others like him didn’t have money to spend, but he lived in a materialistic society around people wealthier than him, so the only way he knew how to get things was to steal it. He lived in a neighborhood with routine violence against women and he behaved similarly towards the girls at school. Boys like him didn’t have his family around and bottled up those feelings without anyone to discuss them. In turn he idolized the prison his father was in like how wealthy kids idolize their parent’s alma mater.
Right now, young boys grow up in poor Bay Area neighborhoods are being exposed to shootings, domestic violence, frequent sirens and people dying. They live in apartment buildings hearing men next door or men in their own households screaming at women and those women end up abused or dead. We briefly took their households out of poverty and gave working parents time to raise their children with the food and materials they need, via the child tax credit, but we let it expire and now child poverty has resumed. Children are being exposed to this without parents to soothe them.
Meanwhile in wealthy neighborhoods like mine in Berkeley the young kids have nannies, or they’re in daycare while one parent works. Or parents go to part-time work. They grow up in households with college degrees on the wall and are put in after school programs to continue learning and develop hobbies. Parents are not immune to domestic violence and aggressive male behavior, but violence against women correlates strongly with poverty. The men in wealthy communities have too much social wealth and signifiers of worth to be wasting time solving their disputes with guns.
In contrast, boys in low income areas see grown men threatening each other, fighting each other and using guns to kill and coerce each other. These are men that their communities fear and who their parents warn them about. These boys confuse fear for respect and realize that the gun is what gives these otherwise weak, unimpressive and unemployed men power. The people with power and respect in their communities who look like them and live with them aren’t nice men with good jobs and education — it’s men with guns.
Young boys grow up terrified of these men. These boys are scared. But over time they cope by swallowing that fear and emulating them.
These boys then take these lessons to school which for them is more like a daycare while their overworked single-parents don’t have time to ensure their attendance or continue their education after school. These poor boys — who are now suffering from high levels of trauma without treatment — resolve their common, petty arguments through violence.
When these boys reach adult years, their sense of self-worth derives entirely from their ability to commit violence — because they don’t have anything else. Wealthy kids aren’t doing this because their social value is self-evident. They don’t need to throw their life away and kill somebody to resolve a conflict because they’re going off to college. They don’t need to flash around dollar bills for people to know they’re wealthy, their zipcodes speak for itself. They don’t need to steal cars, their parents can just buy one. These poor young men’s exposure to male role models weren't educated men, it was incarcerated men.
I grew up in a highly educated family where the Black men had good paying jobs and every Black woman in my majority-female home went to college. When we drove down International Blvd. in Oakland and I saw pimps beating up on prostitutes, it disgusted me as a child because I knew that’s not how women were valued in my household. Boys who aren’t from those households see women treated like that and don’t have examples to the contrary. They grow up with extreme resentment towards women and their own mothers just trying their best but are ill-equipped to raise a child alone, so as adults they harm and kill women.
Men who are especially prone to this are the men with the least amount of self-respect and signifiers of economic success, who believe that if anyone owes them respect, it must be women. No one else will give it to them.
The gun crisis is a weak men crisis. Guns are a powerful objects in the hands of weak and powerless men, who delude themselves into thinking the ability to kill creates status and respect they so desperately want.
Now let me be clear: I am a very strong proponent of strict and extreme gun control and I despise the Second Amendment and how the Supreme Court has interpreted it. We have more guns than people in the United States and our country has a high mortality rate compared to Western peers thanks to guns.
But the fact is the vast majority of gun homicides are committed by men, far beyond their proportion of the population. These men are among society’s poorest, least educated, and mentally untreated. Even though many women also come from backgrounds of poverty and environmental pollution, they are not shooting each other. Women, particularly Black women, are bearing the brunt of this masculinity crisis, with Black women being murdered at high rates far beyond their female peers.
It’s a crisis hitting every poor community, not just Oakland. So how do we fix this trauma and mental health issue plaguing poor young boys?
Every school should have a therapy center that targets young kids from low income backgrounds and teaches them that the gun violence, the domestic violence and crime they witness on a daily basis is harming them. We need to teach them coping mechanisms like meditation, writing out their feelings and open discussion to deal with trauma. This would take a significant financial commitment most municipalities cannot manage so the federal government must step in.
When I was a kid my mother had the foresight to enroll me in an afterschool program for Black boys that were vulnerable to the scourge of poverty and violence by conducting tutoring services and anti-violence lectures. This is a form of violence prevention that targets boys early and every school should have one; they are so remarkably successful. They teach boys how to resolve problems without violence. How to control aggression.
Because violence is often committed by a small, handful of males, violence interventoinists who are often ex-cons and people who grew up similarly to them, can easily identify and confront people most prone to doing it. These programs are successful and they should be funded at all levels of government.
We need to restart the child tax credit again and give these single parents financially relief so they don’t have to excessively work and can take proper care of their children. And we need to reverse the effects of redlining that has polluted neighborhoods with aggression-inducing pollution. That means more green-initiatives to reduce driving and change of land use regulations to protect poor communities from industry.
Every time these shootings happen, the victims extend beyond just the deceased. It’s the traumatized boys watching from the windows who will be the shooters of tomorrow if we don’t intervene when they’re children right now.