Talking guns and youth violence at the Atlantic

My dialogue with Ta-Nehisi Coates about youth violence in Chicago and beyond.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and I recently had a nice dialogue at the Atlantic. We talked about youth violence in Chicago, and beyond:

I don’t know if I’ve told you how I come to this issue, but I should say for everyone reading this that I am from Baltimore — the West Side, as we used to call it. I came of age in the late 1980s and early 90s, a period in which violence spiked in our cities. I don’t know if Chicago today is as bad as it was in, say, 1988, but this was a period of deep fear for everyone in the black communities of Baltimore. And the fear was everywhere.

It changed how we addressed our parents. It changed how we addressed each other. It changed our music. The violence put rules in place that often look strange to the rest of the country. For instance, the mask of hyper-machismo and invulnerability — the ice-grill, as we used to say — looks strange, until you’ve lived in a place where that mask is the only power you have to effect a modicum of safety.

I’m in my late 40s. I was a typical suburban kid graduating high school outside New York. It wasn’t as tough for me as it was on the west side of Baltimore, but crime certainly touched my life. On one occasion, I was in Washington Heights on my way to an AP class at Columbia University. A group of middle-school or early-high-school kids jumped me in the subway station, and they attempted to wrest away my watch. My high school sweetheart had just given it to me; I didn’t want to give it up. So a kid grabbed me by the hair and smashed my head against the concrete floor until I finally relented. As you know, my cousin was beaten to death by two teenage house burglars a few years later.

So I remember very well both the fear and the anger that accompanies one’s sense of physical vulnerability. Of course this anger often comes with a race/ethnic/class tinge that poisons so much of what we are trying to do in revitalizing urban America…..

I’ll let you guess who-was-who there. More here at Ta-Nehisi’s place.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

2 thoughts on “Talking guns and youth violence at the Atlantic”

  1. I was wondering when this would get linked here. Saw it over at the Atlantic when it went up. Great discussion.

  2. I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it. It was idiotic of people to make fun of those Iron John drumbeating folks. In whatever “culturally appropriate” way it has to happen, it seems like men have a hunger to talk to each other. One of the things I remember about the news coverage of the Million Men march was how many black men said how wonderful it was to be with strange black men and not be afraid of them. Maybe people should do that every couple of years.

    Being non-black and non-male I don’t know much about this, except I think also police reform is a huge piece of it, because people shouldn’t feel like it is imposed on them, the justice system I mean. It should reflect what they want for their life, too. I remember a racial incident in Long Beach a few years back. I’m sure there was overlap, but it seemed from the coverage that there were different perceptions of how bad the incident was. This made me wonder what level of safety an average black Long Beach resident expects, or thinks they deserve, or trusts the police to provide. All of which would be influenced by years of x, y, and z, and well, our entire history on race and the justice system. Which we have never resolved, imo. No truth commission, no reparations, no nothing, really.

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