In the streets of Philadelphia, young Black men are the likeliest victims of gun violence, and they are dying at the hands of men who look like them. Some say this is evidence that racism has no role in the murders that have spread through our community like a virus. But that’s not true. Racism is at the core. It’s just hard to see that truth through all the blood.
I know this because I run the non-profit ManUpPHL. Through a simple initiative called Listening to the Streets, we’ve spent weeks talking to some of the men who come from the Philadelphia neighborhoods that are beset by gun violence. To put it more accurately, we’ve spent weeks listening to them. In doing so I have been humbled, because they’ve taught me how much I don’t know about what’s happening in the streets of my city. They’ve taught me the underlying reasons for the gun violence, and they’ve shown me that many of the solutions being bandied about will not work.
This is not to say no one is trying. In fact, the opposite is true. Many people and organizations are trying, including city officials seeking to spend $100 million to address gun violence. But not even that much funding will stop the bloodshed if it is simply thrown into old solutions that are not drawn from the streets.
What we see now is the end result of systemic racism. The most glaring example of that is the billions spent on segregated schools that hold back the Black community. Naicere Simmons, a 26-year-old man from North Philly who participated in Listening to the Streets, explained it this way.
“It’s like I go to school, I graduate school, the only job I can get is McDonald’s? For real? No, I’m cool. I’m going to the block. Ain’t nobody trying to finish all them years of school, and then they say, ‘Yeah, you got to go to a trade school and do two years over here, and then maybe you can get a job over there, or maybe you can do another two years and maybe you can get a job again.’
“Then these white companies and big construction companies, they got nephews, brothers, uncles, all that, that they grandfather went to school and just taught them that s--t. They didn’t go to trade school and all that. They was taught it. We don’t have it. Our mentors and father figures either dead or in jail.”
It was a theme we heard again and again. That the Philadelphia public school system, on which we currently spend $3.91 billion a year, does not prepare all its students to succeed. In fact, our 26-year-old participant told us his schools did the exact opposite.
That is by design. In historically segregated communities that are redlined by banks to prevent investment, policed aggressively to contain the residents, and underserved by a city that concentrates services in richer, whiter communities, generations of Black men have found themselves in violent environments where the anger is turned inward, against their own.
Infuse those environments with drugs and guns, and it becomes a powder keg. The irony of it all is that the problems begin in the very place that is supposed to prepare us for real life — the schools.
“I went to Gratz,” he said. “Gratz at the time had a long generation of rivalry. They beef with anybody who comes to that school that’s not from the area. When I’m going to school, I got people my age asking me where I’m from, and on a threatening tip. If I say the wrong neighborhood, it’s on. I refused to be that person to get punched on, played with, disrespected, any of that ... It started from school.”
So how do we solve the problem right now? Not by pouring money into recreation centers. Our participants told us that in the most violent neighborhoods, those centers are not safe. Not by pouring more money into schools that have failed repeatedly, no matter how much money they’ve received. Not by putting the money into traditional approaches that have done precious little to measurably reduce gun violence.
If we are to decrease gun violence, we must start by listening to the men who are living it. And then we must spend the money where it belongs — on them. Pay them to do on-the-job training in careers where there is room for advancement. Pay them to attend the therapy they need to overcome the trauma of the gun violence they have witnessed. Pay them to show their scars to the generations coming up behind them. Pay them to live.
If we aren’t willing to spend the money on the people whose lives are at risk, we might as well simply flush it down the toilet, because in the words of our young men, they might as well go back to the block.