Gun violence in urban communities must get the same attention as suburban school shootings

Gun violence in urban communities must get the same attention as suburban school shootings
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In the new documentary “After Parkland,” the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., share their story so that others can understand the impact of a school shooting on those left behind. During the last decade, more school shootings occurred than in any prior decade, and more occurred in 2019 than in any other year. School shootings are horrific and understandably receive national attention and outcry.

Yet, countless black and Latino youth in America are regularly exposed to gun violence throughout their lives with little mention. In fact, they are ignored and their experiences normalized. We fail to acknowledge how exposure to repeated acts of violence is traumatizing and can be detrimental long-term.

Unfortunately, that failure is also exhibited in empirical research. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies (JCFS), extends the Federal Bureau of Investigation definition of mass shootings to school shootings by excluding school shootings where less than four people were injured or killed. The authors of the study also exclude gang shootings; hence, some school shootings in urban communities were not counted. Their results give the appearance that school shootings only occur in predominantly white, suburban areas. Their methodology discounts the regular experiences of many black and Latino youth who reside in areas where school shootings and targeted or gang shootings are synonymous. This one study is indicative of larger habits: We think about, and treat differently, survivors of shootings depending on who they are and the circumstances of those shootings.

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Shootings in predominantly white schools repeatedly receive an outpouring of support, such as donations to pay for funerals and the almost immediate provision of trauma-based services. Yet the regular shootings in urban communities get little help or attention, in large part because many Americans view urban violence as normal and someone else’s problem. According to a report by AmericanViolence.org, despite an overall decline in violence in the United States, homicide rates in many urban areas remain above 20 per 100,000, a level typically associated with war-torn nations. Thus, every day, somewhere in our country, a young person, usually black or Latino, is experiencing the terror of violence in their community. 

Simultaneously, every day in those same communities, young people experience a plague of unemployment, poverty, poor access to mental health services and under-investment in education; factors determined long ago to contribute to crime occurring in urban communities.

The disparity in response was highlighted in 2018 when the Parkland survivors joined with youth activists from Chicago to talk about their respective gun violence traumas. In an NPR interview, one of the Chicago students, D'Angelo McDade, stated, “In the city of Chicago, gun violence happens every single day. It is as common as your doorbell ringing. In Parkland, their one school shooting, compared to the everyday shootings in Chicago, brought worldwide, international attention, while in Chicago, we've been begging for support, we've been begging for help. And seeing how the attention went straight to Parkland after this one shooting, one, it was not a form of jealousy, but it was a form of, why couldn't this happen in my community?”

Urban communities are not simply bastions of violence. They are communities rich with neighbors who care about and support each other and grassroots organizers that create and implement programs to interrupt and prevent violence. However, their efforts cannot be the only or primary response. We must remember that gun violence is never normal and it impacts each of us. We must also acknowledge survivors and respond to their needs. We can no longer afford to ignore such a pervasive problem.

Fortunately, since 2013, The Gun Violence Archive has hosted an online archive of nationwide gun violence incidents. The archive tracks the daily records of over 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources to “inform and assist those engaged in discussions and activities concerning gun violence, including analysis of proposed regulations or legislation relating to gun safety usage.”

We can and must count those young people as survivors too. We must remember whether young people experience terror at the hands of a shooter at school or a gunman in their community, the result is the same, a young person and a community have been violently traumatized. Black and Latino urban communities, impacted by violence, deserve that the same attention and resources be given and without hesitation as those provided in response to a school shooting to White suburban communities.

Henrika McCoy is an associate professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.