We begin with the obvious: Florida is an American state. Miami is an American city. And Sherdavia Jenkins, who died in Miami, Florida, just over two weeks ago after being struck by random bullets, was an American child.
So I would have thought it uncontroversial to observe, as I recently did in this column, that her death and the indiscriminate slaughter of American children - in Miami or anywhere else - qualified as "an American problem." Apparently, I was wrong. That is, at least, the feeling of dozens of folks who've written in correction and rebuke.
True enough, they say, Florida is an American state and Miami an American city, but Sherdavia was an "African"-American child. Her suspected killers were also black. Therefore, her murder was not an American problem. It was, rather, a black problem, and only a black problem, born of black dysfunctions for which black people, as Bill Cosby has recently said, bear the onus.
To call me appalled is to understate.
I suppose the first thing that needs saying is that these individuals are wrong on the facts. Like it or not, we live interconnected lives on a small planet. Take the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as illustration: they grew out of grievances half a world away to which most Americans would have told you on Sept. 10 they had no connection. We now know better.
Similarly, even those who live on the good side of town far from the grimy inner city where Sherdavia died are affected by conditions there, if only through higher police costs, the loss of businesses from the inner city, the disintegration of families, the decimation of the tax base, the failure of schools and the resultant proliferation upon our streets of undereducated, poorly socialized young women and men who have known little but privation and violence all their lives. You think that proliferation doesn't endanger you? You're living in fantasyland.
For all that, though, what appalls me most isn't the inaccuracy of what people said, but the niggardly coldness of it.
A few years ago, this nation suffered a spate of random school shootings in places like Conyers, Ga., West Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., Santee, Calif., and Littleton, Colo. Virtually all the shooters were white as were the majority of the victims. The anguished reporting of news magazines, newspapers and cable news anchors clearly identified this as an American crisis. I don't recall anyone contradicting them, don't remember any black activist, preacher or columnist arguing that since it was white boys doing the killing and white kids doing the dying, it was white people who had the problem.
How callous such a statement would have been.
Apparently, there is a different standard where black children are concerned. Then, some of us feel free to disclaim involvement, concern or simple human empathy and to preach to people sick with grief from the Gospel of Cosby.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: I'm not mad at Bill Cosby. Not only do I support much of what he has said in recent years about the need for blacks to take ownership of their own problems, but I was saying it publicly before he was. It is painfully obvious to me that many black folk have failed to pick up the gauntlet of the civil rights movement, failed to confront the myriad dysfunctions of our communities.
But here's the thing: as culpable as we are for failing to confront those dysfunctions, we did not create them. They were created for us by our white countrymen. For criminy sake, read a history book! I'm sorry, but black poverty didn't just happen. Black unemployment didn't just happen. Black self-loathing didn't just happen. Black urban misery didn't just happen. The murder of Sherdavia Jenkins didn't just happen.
No, the roots of these obscenities go deep. And wide.
So yes, people, the indiscriminate murder of black children IS an American problem.
Too bad ignorance is, too.
- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.