Ever since Michael Brown was felled by a white police officer, activists and the media have made the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement the cause célèbre. Yet, in the year following the Brown shooting, 29 unarmed black men were killed by police versus 2205 blacks killed by other blacks (76 times more than the number killed by police), according to 2014 FBI crime data.
Thus, while activists chant “Black lives matter!” for weeks and months after the latest police shooting, hundreds of African Americans—many of whom are youth and children—are being killed by people in their own community without protest or publicity.
When an African American is killed by police because of racism, lack of training, inexperience, or bad judgment, it is an injustice that must be addressed, and vigorously—but not by going silent when one black kills another. Because all black lives matter.
In the article, “African America Has Promises to Keep,” black columnist Leonard Pitts gives voice to two young victims of black-on-black crime: One, a 5-year old in Chicago who was dropped from a 14-story building by a couple of older boys in 1994; the other, a 9-year old targeted and killed by gang members in the same city, whose father, a member of a rival gang, refused to cooperate with the police investigating his murder.
Such tragedies, Pitts asserts, “bear witness” that six decades after blacks left the South to seek the American promise in northern destinations like Chicago, “there are few places more dangerous for black children—for black people—than Chicago.” As to why, Pitts offers,
“Black people soon found that in Chicago—as in other cities—America’s promise offered them only mop buckets, chauffeur’s caps and ghettos teeming with vermin, the constricted parameters of their lives patrolled by police with batons and bankers with maps crisscrossed by red lines. Eventually, the parameters would also enforce themselves: miseducation, teen pregnancy and crime.”
In other words, poverty, crime, and intra-racial murder are the products of racial discrimination and the legacy of slavery. Others see it differently.
Isabel Sawhill, a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institute, testified in a congressional hearing that “virtually all of the increase in child poverty since 1970″ is attributable to the increase in unwed motherhood over the past few decades.
Walter Williams would agree. Williams, also a black columnist, notes that for African Americans the poverty rate is 36 percent, live birth illegitimacy is 75 percent, and 68 percent of households are headed by a female. “If that’s a legacy of slavery,” Williams argues, “it must have skipped several generations, because in the 1940s, unwed births hovered around 14 percent” and in 1950 “black female-headed households were just 18 percent of households.” The little known secret, Williams writes, is that “the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits since 1994 and is about 8 percent today.”
Increased risk of poverty is not the only effect of fatherless households. In the run-up to 2008 presidential election, candidate Barack Obama stated, “We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”
The connection is easy to understand. A child raised in a home without the security, protection, and guidance of a father will seek those needs elsewhere—too often in the welcoming arms of a gang. And gangs, whose members themselves are mostly children of fatherless homes, will provide those needs, free from society’s shared moral consensus and the influence of healthy masculine role models.
Also taking issue with “the legacy of slavery,” economist Thomas Sowell points out that in the first century after slavery, “marriage rates and rates of labor force participation were once higher among blacks than among whites.” The reversal occurred, Sowell notes, “in the wake of the welfare state expansions that began in the 1960s.”
Those expansions, Walter Williams contends, “made self-destructive behavior less costly for the individual,” resulting in “much of today’s pathology seen among many blacks.” As Williams explains, “having children without the benefit of marriage is less burdensome if the mother receives housing subsidies, welfare payments and food stamps. Plus, the social stigma associated with unwed motherhood has vanished. Female-headed households, whether black or white, are a ticket for dependency and all of its associated problems.”
Instead of helping people achieve the dignity of self-sufficiency, the welfare programs of The Great Society created a permanent underclass held captive in the orbit of idleness, dependence, and despair. Able-bodied people on the margins of society don’t need a life-long, work-free dole; they need training, job skills, and temporary subsidies. They also need the social cohesion provided by a family headed by a man and a woman joined in the lifelong covenant of marriage.
They also need a vision.
Journalist Meredith May found that many convicted criminals are convinced that “a mentor might have saved them, anyone from the outside who could have shown them another way to be a man.” One person doing just that—showing young people “another way”—is Richard K. Bennett.
A Ministry of Mentoring
I met Richard in a Christian leadership class 14 years ago. It was the start of a friendship that has deeply enriched my Christian experience.
At 340 pounds and six feet tall, Richard could easily pass for a Tennessee Titan lineman. But after locking eyes with him, the imposing form is transformed into a welcoming sparkle that says, “I love you, Brother.”
Richard grew up in the inner city where drugs, gangs, and violence were givens. Lacking a compelling vision for his life, Richard drifted into an existence of substance abuse, drug dealing, and thuggery. It wasn’t long before his physical and entrepreneurial prowess earned him street respect, money, and female attention. But it all came with a price: a rap sheet, prison sentence, and a body scarred from knives, clubs, and bullets.
On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him display his battle scars while talking about his gangland activities and prison time—not out of pride, but out of overwhelming gratitude for a Grace that turned his future from death row or the city morgue to life eternal. Richard glows when he recounts the night that he acknowledged his need, fell at the foot of the Cross and, as he puts it, “my life went from misery to ministry.”
Beginning in 2001, that ministry has been mentoring at-risk youth with A Better Tomorrow (ABT), an organization Richard founded with wife, Jessica. In an eight-week curriculum, Richard works with parents and school staff in mentoring students in the areas of character development, life skills, job skills, entrepreneurship, decision-making, and conflict resolution.
Each year, the organization serves hundreds of students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds in some of the toughest schools in the city—schools with graduation rates of 35 percent (or less) in neighborhoods where less than 5 percent of homes have both biological parents.
In the last three years, for example, ABT has reached over 600 “at-risk” students from 39 different schools. And the statistics are impressive, with 80 percent gaining increased reading comprehension, 90 percent reporting greater awareness of the dangers of negative choices and gang affiliation, and 85 percent of seniors graduating from high school to enroll in community college, join the military, or become gainfully employed in the workforce. But perhaps the best measure is in the words of students (click on video at 4:30 min. mark) who share the impact that Richard and ABT have had on their lives.
Little wonder that the success of ABT caught the attention of city officials who were eager to have Richard spearhead the city’s violence reduction initiative. But shortly before he was selected and awarded the contract, Richard was wrongly arrested and charged with possession of illegal substances while attempting an intervention on behalf of one of his mentorees.
It was a long, faith-testing year before he was acquitted of all charges. Yet now, when Richard reflects on the experience, it’s not with bitterness at man’s injustice, but acceptance of God’s discipline, and thankfulness for his mercy. For it was during that fiery trial that Richard realized he had been moving ahead of God, and his ministry needed a divine reset. Ever since, he has re-tuned his ear to the divine whisperings, and refocused his efforts on the mission field he’s called to serve. And God has not failed to bless.
People like Richard Bennett do what they do, often at great personal cost, not because black lives matter, or because all black lives matter, but because all lives matter. Concern for anything less is a rejection of our common dignity as beings made in the image of God with a duty to our Maker and each other without regard to color, class, capacity, or condition.
(Photo credit: Black Lives Matter protest, Toronto, July 2015 / Jalani Morgan)