Are We Really Color Blind in Addressing Violence in Our Communities?

by A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon

In recent years, there has been a disproportionate increase in violence in the African American community in Nebraska (particularly in Omaha). An examination of the local crime data from the U.S. Department of Justice, local police reports, the Omaha World-Herald crime reporting process, and the race of inmates locked up in our state’s jails and prisons shows that African Americans have more than their share of crimes committed in their homes and neighborhoods. This steady but documented increase has caused a great deal of cognitive dissonance for many who would like to believe otherwise. Reactions among the state’s African American population run from open embarrassment, to charges of under-reporting of crimes among other constituency groups, to blaming generations of racism and oppression for this higher crime rate.

Regardless of the cause, however, the real question is, can we as one community, black and white, have a frank conversation about this burgeoning problem—and, after talking about it, are we in a position to effectively take steps to address it?

If we, as a state and nation, are ever to tamp down this culture of violence that is tearing at our communities, at a minimum, three things must occur.

First, the perpetrators and the victims have got to get together, talk and find a way to come to a resolution. One of the reasons criminality continues is that we don’t practice restorative justice that gives the often young, first-time offender the opportunity to try to make reparations to the victims and the community at large. Not everyone who commits a crime deserves to be locked up for years—nor can we afford to incarcerate everybody. As a community, the fortunes of our neighborhoods rest on reintegrating offenders (especially those who committed non-capital crimes) back into society. And for that reintegration to succeed, people have to sit down, talk and sort out what can be done.

Second, there has got to be one standard of justice by which we all live. Unless we’re all playing by the same set of rules, injustice will undermine any hope of building community. Two quick examples come to mind… The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 by two racist Mississippians who were subsequently acquitted by a jury of their peers. Both men died a natural death, while Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy was abducted and brutally killed in a hate crime... Then, the killing in Nebraska in 1969 of Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old African American girl who was merely playing in the public housing units in North Omaha where she lived when she was shot dead by an Omaha Police officer for trespassing in an empty housing unit. The officer was acquitted by an all-white jury. Now some readers will ask why we are talking about things that happened decades ago? Well, this is because those two traumatic historical events have permanently affected large groups of people and colored their view of the world. As the brothers and sisters in the hood would ask, why is it acceptable to repeatedly recall the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Jewish Holocaust (events that largely impacted white groups), while Native Americans and African Americans are supposed to develop amnesia or just suck it up? For the African American populations, the killings of those two 14-year-old kids were seminal events that epitomized the culture of racism in America.

And finally, the federal government needs to host a national discussion about the trauma the legacy of slavery and institutional racism have inflicted upon African American citizens. When a people have been historically abused, maltreated and brainwashed to view themselves as unimportant and unworthy of a higher quality of life, you have the conditions that are rampant in North Omaha and the large urban centers of this country. Among no other race or ethnic group in the U.S. do you see the ‘drive-bys’ and ‘car-jackings’ prevalent in the African American community, where ‘black-on-black’ crime has reached epidemic proportions. Poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination only aid and abet this dysfunction. To begin to remedy this situation and promote the conditions for peacemaking requires that we as a multiracial community acknowledge some hard truths—that to be black is different from being white and, most of all, these problems exist in spite of our respective denials and predilection to dance around the facts.

A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon, adjunct professor in the Black Studies Department at UNO, is a member of the State Board of Nebraskans for Peace and active with the NFP Omaha Chapter. A Nebraska native and former Peace Corps volunteer, he was one of the founders of “Omaha Table Talk,” a group that organized community discussions on focused on issues of race.

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