Feature image by sudhamshu

In a recent blog piece, I reflected on my upbringing in Little Village and my beliefs regarding some of the factors that contribute to violence in the community. I wrote that my family instilled in me a strong take-care-of-you-and-yours mentality that included respect for education, maintaining a strong work ethic, and not associating with street thugs. In my post, I explicitly acknowledged my own privilege, and also expressed sympathy for perpetrators of violence–as they are victims in a very real sense, too. While the post was well-received overall, I did receive one troubling response from a reader on our Gozamos Facebook page. The reader dismissed my post as “another simplistic argument from someone who identifies with the dominant meritocratic paradigm; ‘I did it; why can’t you?’ ‘My parents care; why don’t yours?’”

Simplistic argument? Dominant meritocratic paradigm? GASP! I was offended.

The commenter went on to rattle off a litany of oppressive factors that account for gang violence; everything from NAFTA to the difficulty of learning another language to lack of role models–all of which do truthfully factor into the quality of life in Little Village and similar Latino immigrant communities throughout the country. Somehow, the reader read the necessarily narrow focus of my post (I only got 900 words y’all; I wrote a blog post about my youth in the ‘hood, not a sociological text on the causes of urban violence) and interpreted it as an endorsement of meritocracy. This is all kinds of twisted from my intent. It reminded me that some people come down harder on critics of violence in our community than those who actually pull triggers. When did the mere mention of people taking responsibility for their own lives and families become politically incorrect?

Bootstrapping Is for People with Boots. The “I did it; why can’t you” mentality my reader mapped onto my post is one of simple bootstrapping. On the dangers of this type of cultural narrative, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,. once said, “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

I agree.

But, is expecting a hothead gangbanger with something to prove to not fire a gun into a crowd of people who may or may not be targets the same as telling a bootless man to be self-reliant?

No. Unequivocally, no.

The Invisible Causes of Violence. Workers at CeaseFire, an organization committed to reducing violence in Chicago, report that many acts of violence are interpersonal and not gang-related, per se. Using their knowledge of happenings in the neighborhoods where they live and work, CeaseFire reps are able to talk to would-be offenders, calming them down, helping them verbally resolve disputes before any emotions are acted upon with violence. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director at CeaseFire, was quoted in the 2011 documentary, The Interrupters, as saying: “Violence is like the great infectious diseases of all history. We used to look at people with plague, leprosy, TB as bad and evil people, and something needs to be done about them. They were put in dungeons. What perpetuates violence today can be as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were.”

It’s understandable that one might turn to the underground economy to earn a living when no other opportunities exist. I have considerably more difficulty trying to understand how someone can rush out and shoot up a porch where women and children are sitting around just chilling. Feelings of anger, weakness, wounded pride: these are among the most immediate invisible causes of violence. Fortunately, they are curable.

It’s Not Either/Or. It’s Both. To those who bristle at the idea that anyone would dare say out loud that we need to take responsibility for own lives and our own families, to those who shudder at the mention of personal responsibility and self-control as an integral component of positive change, I wish you well in your wait for government and other slow-moving institutions to save us. Get comfortable. You have a hell of a long wait.

Still, the acknowledgement that broader change is slow coming does not mean we should not push for social justice. We must work for social change. The complicated realities of urban unemployment, failing schools, widespread substance abuse, underfunded communities and a criminal justice system designed solely to maintain the status quo all need to be addressed in any serious plan for improving the quality of life in our community. I do not deny these broader socioeconomic complexities that weigh heavily on us–and yes, some of us are weighed down more than others. Nor do I have specific answers as to how to best combat these social ills. Rather, I simply wish to engage in an earnest discussion on the importance of maintaining a healthy individual psychology focused on having self-control and respecting human life more than material goods.

What do we value?  What is the value we place on money and power? On blood? On peace? Who taught us these values, and for what purpose? How can we learn to not react to every single negative emotion we feel? Do we empathize enough with each other? Do we believe in change and growth?

The world isn’t the only thing we need to change. We also need to change our minds.

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