I sat in the movie theater on a Sunday afternoon, tears streaming down my cheeks. The roughness of the concession stand napkin was all I had to staunch my sorrow at the end of Fruitvale Station. The film depicts the last day of 22 year old Oscar, a guy trying to make ends meet in Oakland, CA who was killed by police officers on New Year’s Day in 2008. Unarmed and shot in the back, Oscar’s story resonates with current events surrounding the shooting and subsequent trial of 17 year old Travyon Martin in Florida. Both men were black. Both men were trying to get home. Both were the victims of the use of excessive force.
As sad as Oscar and Travyon’s stories are – particularly to those who knew them well – their deaths represent a unexplored phenomenon in America. That of violence amongst males between the ages of 10-24. The CDC reports that from 1994-2010, the highest homicide rate nationally is in this age group. Perhaps even more alarming is that this group has a “consistently higher than homicide rates for males of all ages combined.”
Violence against each other is killing young men in America. And though this is apparently a 30 year low for the age group overall: the stories from the high risk group are more gripping than ever. Captured by cell phones, championed by social media, and brought to us via the 24 hour news cycle, we are dealing with the aftermath of violence but not the murky causes.
Maybe as my friend suggests, it is guns and racism. Maybe, as I was arguing, while we walked out of the movie theater, it was socialization. Men caught in a fight cannot back down without threatening their masculinity. Does violence then come down to worries about perception?
If you look more closely at the data, the highest casualty rate is among Non-Hispanic, Black men between the ages of 10-24 and when measuring them against themselves, the highest risk group is 20-24 years old.
Watching films like Fruitvale Station or the keeping track of the events in the Zimmerman trial – which had elements reminiscent of cinema despite being heartrendingly real – the unasked question lingers. And it isn’t about race or about guns per se.
Again and again, in scene after scene, we see men who have been taught not to back down in a conflict. The escalation of aggression in American male culture is silent, untreated killer. Guns or racism may be the trigger, but the inability to back down, to bring calm to a situation, to take a step back; manliness is inseparable from the assertion of dominance.
Whether the cop who clings to his authority or the youth who can’t lose face in front of peers, males engaged in a conflict often cannot step aside once it begins.
What do we teach our boys about how to handle conflict? From an early age if a toddler comes crying about someone hitting him on the playground, what are the messages we give him? Later, in teenage years with bullying, we may hope our child is the bully and not the bullied.
As adults, few men have the skills to deal with interpersonal conflict. Women, on the other hand, who was socialized in groups and for consensus, can talk, and talk and talk about or through a problem. Do young women have an inert advantage over men in backing down from escalating aggression that might get them killed? Statistics suggest this might be the case. The CDC reports “There was no difference in homicide rates for females by age.”
You can read more about these staggering numbers relating to male youth homicide and most of the facts are not surprising. Death by firearm is highest among young, black males. The homicide rate of young, white males of the same age group is less than a half of that of black males.
There is a war going on in America. And it has as much to do with how young men interact with each other as what weapons are available to them.