Friday, February 23, 2018

One In

So back when I was 15, I entered the demographic of Black (or African-American, if you like) males of between 15 and 34 years old. And as one might reasonably guess, I stayed there for 20 years. There's nothing really special about that, in the grand scheme of things. After all, everyone who makes it to 35 has spent 20 years in the 15 to 34 age cohort.

What makes that group interesting, or perhaps tragic is a better term, is that the leading cause of death for people in that demographic is homicide. For a little more than the first half of my time there, I lived in and around Chicago. President Trump might like to hold up the current violent crime rate in the city as evidence that Democratic mayors suck, but it was worse when I lived there. Worse to the degree that a Black male between 15 and 24 had some insane chance of being shot at least once; I can't remember it any more, but I think it was somewhere in the area of 1 in 6, or maybe 1 in 5. Of course, this is somewhat different than the homicide numbers - not all gunshots result in homicides and not all homicides are from gunshots, but I always had this looming sense that violence lurked nearby.

Not death, but violence. I'd been hospitalized for kidney stones (the first of many) when I was 19, and a tardy nurse wound up leaving me with the impression that my future was going to be cut very short by an air embolism. I, obviously, survived that very long night, but my fear of death didn't. My newfound respect for pain, however, survived intact and I knew that violence and suffering were close friends.

The biggest birthday party that I've ever thrown for myself was my 25th. I'd finally aged out of the Danger Zone. Of course, I still had 10 more years of being in a demographic whose leading cause of death was homicide, but the chances has gone down. Of course they hadn't gone away, and I knew that.

It's a weird thing, never feeling "safe." And not only because I understood my chances of being on the wrong end of a bullet. In Chicago, as I remember it, rain, and thunderstorms, were normally evening and night phenomena. Not always, but usually. One June, I think it was, it rained, and thunderstormed, a lot during the day. If I'm remembering correctly, 18 people were struck and killed by lightning that month, including a family of 4, killed all at once.

A very Christian acquaintance of mine remarked to me that some grievous sin must have led to a divine smiting. "It didn't happen for a reason," I answered. "The lightning doesn't care."

I didn't realize it at the time, but the world I was constructing for myself was both dangerous and random. Life could be shattered for any reason at any moment, but that didn't make it precious - it just made it life. This was the way the world was. It was not fair, it was not just and it did not care what happened to you. It just was. And that meant that sometimes, the lightning found you. Or maybe a bullet did. Or maybe a blood clot in your leg came loose and you never knew what hit you.

It sounds bleak, I know, but I never really saw it that way. My friends, most of whom were White, never saw it at all. Their worlds were safer and more orderly than mine. Where the death of someone like them was a tragedy. A cause for emotion and reaction. The death of someone like me went unnoticed. Not because they were cruel. I suspect that if the lightning or a bullet had found me, they'd have been heartbroken. But heartbreak is a finite resource. There isn't enough of it to grieve day after day after day. Besides, most of the unlucky dead were in the 'hood. Drug dealers and thugs, obviously. People who gambled on living dangerously, and lost. Nothing to do with them.

Eventually, I learned that one of the primary predictors or being murdered was knowing someone who had been murdered. That bit of order to the chaos calmed things somewhat. By the time I moved to the Seattle area, I wasn't as concerned that a bullet had my name on it. The lightning still didn't care, but thunderstorms are rare here. But still, I wonder what can be done about the 20-year span in which for people who "look like me," homicide is the leading cause of death. I wonder if the kids I worked with when I was in my early twenties all made it out alive. (The odds say at least some of them didn't.) And that wondering prevents me from being worked up about mass shootings. There are bigger fish to fry.

Yes, mass shootings make for scary headlines. And that's why I don't worry about them. Someone once noted, that when things were in the headlines, it didn't make sense to worry about them. They make headlines precisely because, in the grand scheme of things, they're rare, and that's what makes them newsworthy. When they stop making headlines, then worry. And the one here, two there killings of Black males from 15-34 are far too common for headlines. And the reforms and changes that people demand when the news trucks are around aren't likely to change that. Other measures will be needed. More measured ones, most likely.

It's been a while since I was in that demographic that was so marked, and marred, by violence. That blowout 25th birthday party is half a lifetime gone. I don't know that I'm wiser, but I am older, and I don't worry as much. After all, homicide is only the seventh leading cause of death for Black men my age. What are the odds?

No comments: