It is true that far too high a number of young African Americans, particularly young men, die in gun violence involving other African Americans. That circumstance bespeaks a tragic confluence of conditions, conditions illuminated not much at all by speaking of “black-on-black crime” or even of broken families and absentee fathers. Closer to the root core of the Chicago gun-violence problem one will find uniquely acute levels of joblessness and poverty, long-segregated neighborhoods, the easy availability of guns in America and the trade in illegal drugs. In short, borrowing the lexicon of sociologists, there are major structural causes of disproportionate black male involvement in gun crime.
Saying this does not absolve the perpetrators of gun violence of one ounce of responsibility for their criminal actions. Just like white and affluent communities, black and poor communities deserve to be free of the scourge of gun violence. Society should respond firmly and strongly to violence wherever it occurs. To say structure matters is not to deny moral and legal culpability for bad actions.
But, to stress how structure matters should change the discourse for us. In America, we typically carry on an unfortunately lopsided emphasis on individual choice as the principle factors behind urban gun violence; that bias is what is in need of realignment. Culture, human agency and the like are hardly the central factors here. To be sure, it does take a human actor to pull the trigger of a gun. Yes. But it also takes a deep and profound breakdown in the bonds of civility and mutual human obligation that characterize our communities in order to produce 443 gun deaths — 65 of whom were 18 or younger — in a city the size of Chicago in one year, which is what happened in 2012.
Such a fissure in the social fabric is not merely the product of isolated bad actors. It results, instead, from the debilitating mix of persistent high unemployment and poverty and the indifferent gaze of a broader society, both of which reflect a legacy of segregation in housing and racism. Yes, with economic hardship comes the correlated difficulties of maintaining stable family units, of parental supervision of children and of putting a focus on education and self-reliance. When you add to such a fragile mix easy access to guns, as we have here in America, and the financial allure of the trade in illegal drugs, you have a more complete sense of the forces sustaining high levels of gun violence in poor unban communities.
The gun violence in Chicago should indeed be part of the discussion propelling gun-control reform. It should be because it, too — like Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine (and too many other places) — involves a needlessly high toll of gun deaths. This is not a “black-on-black crime” issue (indeed the phrase probably needs to disappear as it is so fraught and inapposite). The challenge here is not how to bring “race” into the discussion, but how to match the outsized and destructive power of the National Rifle Association and the gun and ammunition manufacturers in our national politics.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.