Like it or not, much of the discussion about gun violence flows over to the issue of race, or more specifically, how racial minorities are disproportionately the victims of violence caused by guns. According to our friends at the Violence Policy Center (VPC), black Americans “are only 13% of the U.S. population, yet represent 50% of homicide victims,” of whom 83% were killed with guns.
Things don’t get any better when we break the numbers down by racial and age groups. In 2016, the leading cause of African-American mortality for men and women ages 15-24 and 25 -34 was homicide, accounting for 42% of all deaths for the 15-24 group, and ‘only’ 26% for the age group 25 to 34. For whites in those some age groups, homicides ranked 7% and 5% respectively for all deaths.
These are terrible numbers, for the most part reflecting the degree to which African-American communities continue to experience the socio-economic manifestations of poverty which divide such populations from everyone else. I recall the shock and dismay when Michael Harrington ‘discovered’ this seemingly-intractable indigence in his classic The Other America, published in 1962. In the more than half century since that time have things really changed?
I think it’s a major step forward when a Parkland kid like David Hogg, who refers to himself as ‘white and privileged’ makes it clear that he wants to speak not just for his classmates but for “all of the people that have died as a result of gun violence and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard.” As terrifying as mass shootings are, let’s not forget that such events add a tiny fraction to the overall gun violence body count, and most of that count are bodies which are young and black.
The purpose of this column, however, is not to advocate for more attention paid to inner-city gun violence, but rather to discuss another aspect of the gun violence issue which is too-often ignored. Because if we are going to concentrate our concerns on what gun violence does to the quality of life and the length of lives in our inner cities, we skip over what gun violence does in communities not of color, but communities where only folks in the majority race tend to live.
Ever been to Wirt County in West Virginia? It covers some 250 square miles of rolling hills and small farms some 40 miles north of Charleston, in 2016 four out of five voters marked their ballots for D.D.D. Trump. The county is home to some 5,800 people, median family income is around $36,000 (the U.S. median is now just under $60,000) and the racial diversity is zero; i.e., it’s all white. In 2014, there were 9 murders in Wirt County, which doesn’t sound like a heckuva lot except on a per-100,000 basis, which is how we figure crime rates, it works out to 155. The last time I checked, the murder rate in gun-happy Philadelphia was 16.
Look at the murders in Wirt County from another point of view. The population density in New York City is 66,000 per square mile, which means that in Manhattan, the average city block is home to roughly 3,300 folks. Put two city blocks together and you have about the same number of people that live in Wirt County. How would you feel if 9 people were murdered in one year on the block where you lived?
In 2016, more than 8,600 white men and women were murdered, three-quarters with guns. But we don’t hear about these killings because they take place in small, dispersed, isolated places like Wirt County, and believe me, there are plenty of Wirt Counties all over the national map.
I’m really hopeful that the Parkland kids will create more pressure on the media to talk not just about the spectacular, rampage shootings, but as well spend more time reporting about the humdrum, one-on-one shootings which happen every day. But let’s just remember to include all the victims of gun violence in those reports.