Archive for Saturday, March 10, 2001

Young white America is clearly in pain

March 10, 2001


The only difference is that this time it's a San Diego suburb.

Everything else is the same, isn't it? All the pieces in their fixed and familiar positions. The disaffected loner carrying a weapon to school to take out his anger on this person or that clique. The specific beef leading to the random payback that falls, with the equality of rain, upon those the kid hated and those he didn't even know. He maims and kills with a cold randomness that sucks the breath out of you.

And our response in the aftermath is the same, too. We sift the heart of tragedy with an archaeologist's care, looking for clues to why. Experts pop up on the morning news shows like dandelions on the lawn. Gun enthusiasts and gun-control advocates restate their positions. And news media dutifully assign a moral to the story, a lesson we are to learn, a theme we are to ponder. This latest one, we are told, is about the scrawny, unpopular kid, scorned by his classmates, set upon by bullies.

But it seems to me that it's time to acknowledge the elephant in the elevator to confront the blindingly obvious question in all this that somehow goes repeatedly unasked.

The kids at the center of this recent wave of random school violence are startlingly alike in several ways. All live in rural or suburban areas, nearly all are male and nearly all are white. So it seems fair to wonder: What is wrong with THOSE kids?

That the question has scarcely been asked can be blamed, I think, on the myopia of the media and experts who frame these issues. Many of them, after all, live in rural and suburban areas, most are male and most are white. And it's always easier, if you belong to the majority, to discern the pathologies of a discrete group of them over there than it is to see similar pathologies among those who look and act like you, over here.

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that when some urban-dwelling black kid has a beef with another black kid, goes gunning for him and inadvertently kills or injures some bystander, we put that kid's culture and environment under a microscope. We debate the effects of fatherlessness in the African-American community, poverty in the African-American community, miseducation in the African-American community. We struggle to find out what it is about that specific community that has led him to do this awful thing.

But when some middle-American white kid has a beef, goes out and shoots everything that moves, our questions become conspicuously more generic. We debate video games, movie violence, gun control laws ... non-specific things applicable to kids of all kinds. We never ask what it is about his particular community and culture that has left him so angry, so self-obsessed, so alienated from his very humanity. We never ask if there's something inherently isolating about the suburbs. Or something empty about lives of relative affluence.

There is, it seems to me, a blind spot. So that when violence racks the black inner city, the talking heads and the media types reflexively ask: What's wrong with the black kids?

Yet when violence racks a white suburb, they ask: What's wrong with the kids? Just "the kids," period.

It strikes me that people in the black inner city might justifiably point out that this problem of random school violence is not with "the kids." Rather, it's with the white kids, with youngsters who live outside the urban core. As a society, we need to understand it in this way.

Not as a sop to the sensitivities of African-American people. But rather, as a first step toward effectively tackling the problem.

I am not saying emphatically NOT SAYING that black folks do not or ought not care about white kids. We're all Americans and these are all our children.

What I am saying is this:

Young white America is in pain. This ought to be obvious. And the nation ought to be about seeking some answers.

But first, we must find the guts to start asking the right questions.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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