The Washington Post
To stop gun violence, first look at poverty, racism
Erica Ahdoot, executive director of Horton’s Kids, a D.C. nonprofit that helps kids graduate from high school and prepare for life, recently coauthored an opinion piece for The Washington Post about curbing gun violence. Reader response was spirited to say the least. Many commenters disagreed with the authors’ main point: Violence is a symptom of systemic racism, inequality and poverty.
“Decades of chronic disinvestment and systemic racism have resulted in endemic gun violence,” wrote Ahdoot and two Horton’s Kids colleagues, Shandell Richards and Brad Sickels. “In D.C., most gun violence is tightly concentrated among a small number of very high-risk individuals who share a common set of risk factors. Chief among them are poverty and the lack of a social safety net.”
I thought their opinion was on point. Since civil discourse on such issues is all but impossible these days, I asked Ahdoot for her take on some of the comments.
Here’s a view that seemed widely held among the commenters:
“Millions of whites, Hispanics, Asians and others grew up in grinding poverty in America, often facing discrimination, and didn’t feel the need to knock over a 7-11, jack a car or deal drugs on the corner,” one wrote.
It should go without saying that millions and millions of Black people haven’t felt the need to knock over a 7-Eleven either, or commit any other crime. But such misperceptions are part of the problem that should be dealt with, not ignored. Also, the notion persists that poverty and discrimination experienced by Whites, and others, were as bad as slavery, which lasted 246 years, and Jim Crow segregation, which lasted another 100 years.
Ahdoot graciously responded to the commenters when I asked.
“America is unique in the world, given how it was founded: the centuries of slavery, oppression, explicit and internalized racism, and the resulting chaos and enduring inequities,” she said. “This is a First World country that promises opportunity for all. And yet, within its own boundaries, what is happening is so unbelievably unjust, unfair and so traumatic that it has really impacted how people are able to cope and even who they see as the enemy.”
For too many young Black men, that enemy is most often perceived as another young Black man, like himself. No offense is necessary. Sometimes just a wrong look is enough to trigger a shooting. Such is the effect of internalized racism, Ahdoot said, and exacerbated by crowding poor Black people into isolated economic deserts.
D.C. has one of the widest racial wealth and income gaps in the country. So, even when lowincome Blacks do end up residing close to, say, wealthy people who are gentrifying the city, they still end up alienated and living in another world.
Horton’s Kids was founded 33 years ago. For the past three decades, the organization has been helping support the academic and social development of families in two of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods: Wellington Park and Stanton Oaks in Ward 8. Located in Southeast Washington, that ward accounted for 62 percent of the city’s 220 homicides last year. Of the 120 killings so far this year, at least 43 have occurred in the ward.
Another commenter wrote: “Shootings are due to a ‘few’ people among the many, the article claims, who are poor and poorly educated and suffer ‘systemic racism.’ So, what makes these people different from those who live in similar environments but don’t go around shooting others?”
Good question. Ahdoot, whose work includes providing therapy for traumatized families, has spent 25 years developing programs that nurture the hidden personal assets that often make the difference between success and failure.
“For each individual, there are protective factors — a unique kind of personal disposition — that we bring when we come into the world,” she said. “They help to buffer us from things that for others with a different disposition might seem insurmountable. These assets need to be brought out by a family member or a friend or someone who comes along and, for whatever reason — because of their friendship, a sense of connection, out of love — helps that person take the next step or just keep moving.”
Among her previous jobs was executive director of a New York City-based academic nonprofit, Groundwork. That organization was founded by Richard Buery Jr., who in February replaced Wes Moore as executive director of the Robin Hood Foundation, a poverty-fighting nonprofit.
Moore recently won the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary, which means he could become the state’s first Black governor. He has written a book, “The Other Wes Moore,” about two young men with the same name from impoverished backgrounds. One becomes a Rhodes scholar and his party’s nominee; the other goes to prison.
The book lays out in compelling terms how that happened — and what must be done to ensure that everybody gets an opportunity. Or, as Moore put it on his campaign literature: “Leave No One Behind.”
Commenters wondered if Horton’s Kids was having any successes. The answer is plenty, but not nearly enough. The scramble for resources is relentless, Ahdoot said. The group’s annual fundraiser, Home Runs for Horton’s Kids, will be Wednesday at Nationals Park from 6 to 9 p.m. Guests will have exclusive access to the baseball park for batting practice, a pitching competition, a carnival and other activities.
To end gun violence, commenters offered myriad suggestions: Ban guns, stop playing rap music, stop glorifying the “thug life.” Don’t have a baby you can’t afford. Celebrate marriage, support twoparent households. End corporal punishment. Behave.
As Ahdoot sees it, piecemeal approaches to the problem don’t work.
“We have to address the underlying issues,” she said, “do the things that people refuse to believe can be done — end poverty, end racism, stop the injustice.”
That would mean the end of fear as we know it. And who would need to carry a gun then?
“This is a First World country that promises opportunity for all. And yet . . . what is happening is so unbelievably unjust, unfair and so traumatic that it has really impacted how people are able to cope and even who they see as the enemy.” Erica Ahdoot, executive director of horton’s Kids