'A desperate need': Black homicide epidemic demands prevention, justice

'A desperate need': Black homicide epidemic demands prevention, justice
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You can’t talk about the Black Lives Matter movement without discussing the homicide epidemic happening in Black communities.

As we see the worldwide protests and demonstrations against the policing and unlawful killings of Black bodies, in the backdrop are the ever-present high rates of homicide in predominantly Black communities. Many people from different racial backgrounds are loudly protesting the pervasiveness of systemic racism in U.S. institutions, organizations and communities resulting in the constant devaluation of Black lives. If we, as a society, are invested in ensuring that Black lives matter, then we also have to address the disproportionate homicides that have roots in systemic racism and that have plagued Black communities for years.

In the 50 cities with the country’s highest homicide rates, Black individuals make up or account for 81 percent of homicide victims, even though they make up only 13.4 percent of the general population. Despite significant increases in police and public safety funding, the Black homicide rate has remained consistently higher than those in other racial and ethnic groups since around 1960. In fact, homicide rates in Black communities within some major cities have remained consistent during the pandemic, even when a majority of people adhered to stay-at-home-orders.

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Why is this happening?

Systemic racism starves Black communities of resources, power, opportunities and money. Black communities are beset with extreme poverty, high unemployment, substance abuse and other social issues. The trauma and stress of living in such environments can be linked to the perpetration of violence and victimization. In other words, violence against Black communities begets violence.

As the nation protests the senseless loss of Black lives due to police brutality and as the pandemic becomes worse, violence has increased in major cities like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. Innocent bystanders, adults and children alike are being killed; during one of the deadliest weekends in June, 104 people were shot and 14 killed in Chicago. One of them was a 3-year-old boy.

The federal response to this violence — and to demonstrations that are taking place — has been to send federal law enforcement agents to some of these cities, threatening the civil rights of their residents and failing to provide a solution to the problem the government claims it is trying to address.

What has been absent from the discussion is the sustained, years-long damage done to Black individuals and communities by the homicide epidemic.

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We conducted a small pilot study examining the experiences of Black individuals living in the Boston area and coping with the homicide of a loved one. Survivors shared with us the loss, grief, trauma and stigma they experienced when the murder occurred and in the years following. “How could somebody kill my child, and why did my child get killed? I don't ever wish this on any mother, no shape, form or fashion,” one survivor told us. “My mind is always on him 'cause I feel like I failed him. I should have been there to do something to help him, like take his pain away.”

Few mental health resources are available for survivors dealing with such grief and trauma, and many of those in place were created by homicide survivors themselves. Failures of law enforcement and our criminal justice system deprive many surviving friends and families of the justice they need to heal. Of the 26,000 unsolved murders in major U.S. cities in the past decade, 18,000 — almost three quarters — had Black victims, according to a 2018 Washington Post analysis of homicide cases.

A woman we interviewed as part of our study was angry that her son’s case remains unsolved. “It's like everyday somebody else getting murdered,” she said. “So, I don't even know if they're gonna ever solve his murder. And that's how I feel. Are they gonna ever solve it?”

There are a number of steps we can take to eliminate this epidemic and its negative effects on Black mental health.

We should redirect funds from police departments to provide quality, accessible health and mental health services in Black communities. There is a desperate need for culturally responsive and relevant mental health services for Black homicide survivors on the individual, family and community levels. Few services provide long-term support to homicide survivors and those injured by gun violence. There is also a significant lack of long-term follow-up with people who have survived a shooting. The physical, emotional and financial toll often goes unaddressed.

Better mental health services could help Black communities cope with cumulative losses associated with COVID-19, police brutality and exposure to community violence. If we provide the necessary support to Black communities violently affected by systemic racism, it could lead to a decrease in community violence and homicide. 

We also need to significantly increase resources and opportunities in Black communities. Redirected funds can be used to support small business and entrepreneurs, improve school systems, increase affordable housing and provide enrichment programs for youth. Increasing resources and opportunities within Black communities can help to dismantle systemic racism.

We need to invest in effective violence prevention. We need to investigate how systematic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system has resulted in thousands of Black homicides going unsolved — and provide money and resources to solve them. Friends and family of homicide victims deserve justice.

And finally, we need to collectively educate ourselves on the experience of a Black survivor of homicide. Understanding the complexity of their stories will aid in providing the support that is desperately needed.

If you care about Black lives, call on national, state and local officials to fund the resources, opportunities and services needed to counteract the effects of systemic racism on Black communities. Help Black survivors cope with trauma and grief and work to prevent the loss of Black lives to future homicides.

Dr. Judith C. Scott is an assistant professor at Boston University School of Social Work. Kendall G. Johnson, MSW, is a lecturer at Boston University School of Social Work and previously worked as a social work clinician with the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office in Michigan.