A roll of police tape (police line) lies on the ground outside a home being foreclosed on in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2009.
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What makes a 16-year-old child become a murderer? Each day in many Black communities, we see many of our youths and young adults trapped in a life of violence that they see no means of escaping. Rather than asking what’s wrong with them, we should ask what happened to them.

As we continue to experience the typical highs and lows of our news cycles, the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court is still an inspiring and proud moment in 2022. For many youths and young adults in urban America, having the first Black female confirmed as an associate justice to the Supreme Court means little or nothing to them.

Many nationwide remain outraged by the recent supermarket shooting in Buffalo, the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the hospital shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mass shootings are nothing new to many teenagers in urban America, where gun violence is a regular part of life. The war in Ukraine means nothing to them. The same is true of the midterm elections and the public hearings conducted by the Jan. 6 House Select Committee. While the attack on voting rights and voter suppression negatively affect communities of color, it is not a significant concern in their world.

Several weeks ago, a 15-year-old rapper was shot and killed near his home in Washington, D.C. He was shot, chased down, and shot multiple times to ensure that his death was complete — hunted down like an animal. Like many teenagers his age, he had dropped out of school because it was no longer relevant to his life.

How can we realistically expect kids to focus on math, English and history when they have to focus on not being killed or having their loved ones harmed? Every day, shootings and stabbings occur that may not result in death, but they leave lasting anger, fear and trauma on the individual, the family and the community. Living in a war zone filled with violence, destruction and poverty is a life that is a reality for many.

The Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, just held its march and rally in D.C., highlighting the plight of millions of Americans who have no livable wage or healthcare and are on the brink of hunger and eviction. They stand on the principle that people should not live or die from poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Economic inequality, systemic racism, and unjust criminalization systems are the root causes of poverty and evidence that the nation’s moral crisis has never ended and should constantly be exposed. When it comes to families living in impoverished neighborhoods, the fight to secure and maintain vital anti-poverty programs is critical. Typically, the person with the greatest influence in a child’s life is the parent. Offsetting a child’s neglect by the parent in the home is even more critical when addressing poverty. It is a topic that quickly gets lost when the discussion of poverty highlights systemic racism and social injustice.

When we speak about any form of inequality or injustice, there is always the privileged versus the underprivileged. Privilege is not just based on race, but class, zip code, and educational opportunities.

Biblical scripture states, “My people are destroyed by a lack of knowledge.” Knowledge is critical in any child’s social, mental, emotional, spiritual and physical development. Without it, the dreams and potential of the child are destroyed. Where is the source of knowledge if you take away school and education from the child? If you remove the church, the desire to read, and the wise counsel from experienced elders from the equation, what is the source of knowledge for a child or young adult?

Today, Ketanji Brown Jackson is a member of the highest court in the nation. She was a child of privilege, having two parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, who instilled in her the value of hard work. She learned that from her hard work, she could become anything she wanted to be. It is a privilege not often afforded to youths and young adults living in poverty.

Consider the child who has never heard the words “I love you” from a parent or is literally thrown out into the streets to fend for themselves. Consider those whose fathers have checked out and mothers who are irresponsible because they are strung out on drugs. Consider the child who believes no one cares so they drop out of school simply because they have no way of cleaning their school clothes. Let us not forget the children who are abused sexually, emotionally and physically from the home.

Parental neglect, apathy and abandonment are ways in which a 16-year-old child becomes a killer who is mad at the world. What would be their future if you placed those same children in a household with Johnny and Ellery Brown-type parents where love, knowledge and wisdom are transferred from one generation to another?

Black people have long known how to operate in two Americas, one white and one that is Black. But the idea of this “double consciousness” should also consider two separate Black Americas: one where the American dream is obtainable despite the challenges of systemic racism, the other in a world filled with death, despair and hopelessness.

Let us never forget the lives of children who don’t have the advantage of a responsible and loving parent. It will take privileged people from all walks of life to recognize and appreciate their privilege and then find multiple ways to help those who lack knowledge and privilege to gain knowledge and privilege.

Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.”

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