When Kids Kill
Since the school shootings in Littleton, the nation's print and broadcast media have unleashed a sensational outpouring of analysis and concern aiming to explain why boys kill and what can be done to save them.
Once we get by the headlines, however, we find our questions and compassion are being directed toward "our boys." As Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint has noted, "When white middle class kids kill, there is always a public outcry of why and a search for what went wrong, but when inner city minority kids kill, the public is warned of demons and super predators."
Stepping back some from the spin of the moment, it is easy to see a double standard. According to FBI statistics, the overall rate of homicide has remained relatively constant for the past 30 years. However, in the period from the mid-80s to the mid-90s when youth homicide soared 168 percent, media and political leaders turned a blind eye to deteriorating conditions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Houston. As the inner-city industrial base disintegrated, family and social services cutback, schools worsened, and hope disappeared, juvenile arrests for weapons, aggravated assault, robbery and murder jumped 50 percent. Yet as long as the face of violence was black or brown, a simple solution of more prisons and more police seemed the best answer to violent youth.
But today, the issue is more "complex." What's happening in the heartland? What's gone wrong in our small towns and suburbs? Where are the parents of these kids? What values are we teaching? It's time to censor violent media. Can we get some gun control? White upper and middle class boys from "good families" have committed mass murder and stirred the national conscience.
Predictably several timely books have arrived to meet the demand for serious soul searching. By far the most useful is James Garbarino's Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent And How We Can Save Them (The Free Press). A professor of human development at Cornell University, Garbarino has been studying violent youth of all races and socio-economic backgrounds for 25 years. As a result, he has developed a class and race perspective on violence that won't allow the issue to be reduced to family and emotional problems.
While sharing in the conventional wisdom regarding risk factors for urban youth violence (a family history of criminal violence, physical and sexual abuse, gang membership, drug use, gun use, parental abandonment), Garbarino has seen enough to weight social inequality and community breakdown primary causes of youth homicide. Criminal justice stats from California and New York indicate that black and Latino teens had murder rates 10 to 20 times higher than white teens during the early to mid 1990s. Nonetheless, the violence of lost boys of color sparked few cries of compassionate intervention. Beyond the hip-hop nation, race, poverty, and despair wasn't news. In 1999, it still isn't.
And with that in mind, Garbarino's book is drawing national attention because of what he has to say about the lethal violence of white youth of relative economic privilege. Citing interviews with middle class boys jailed for homicide and recent data suggesting a rising murder rate for small town/rural youth, Garbarino concludes that boys really are angrier and more violent these days. And why are America's more favored sons losing their way?
While keenly aware of class and race differences, Garbarino finds "profound similarities" between boys who kill. Most all have experienced parental abandonment, abuse, and rejection. Most all live with no meaning beyond self and money. Absent family and community ties, they fall victim to "violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean spirited competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness." In other words, lost boys are a by-product of everyday pathologies of American life.
The lost boys of the white small town/suburban middle class are, of course, not provoked by the harsh economic and social conditions of the inner city. And Garbarino is very weak on nailing "risk factors" for more upscale youth. He trots out much the same bad environment list (which is not wrong, just incomplete) we've been getting from the mainstream media: adult neglect, violent media images, gun availability, emotional blocks, lack of limit setting, etc. But when he points a finger at the lack of "affirmative values" in society as a whole, Garbarino starts to sound like a social revolutionary.
Calling for parenting and cultural teaching that stress democratic values, social equality, universal human rights, and human purpose beyond material goods and "me," he is describing what's needed in the lives of lost boys everywhere. Unfortunately, dressed as the professional advice of a mental health expert, Garbarino's book will not likely be read for its radical political implications. And most certainly, it will not stir attention on the lost boys demonized and forsaken in the country's urban jungles.