By now, you can write these stories in your sleep. Young thugs with guns start shooting at each other. Bullets spray. Innocent bystanders bleed and die. Anguished soul-searching breaks out all over. How could a harmless street party turn into a bloodbath? Clearly, we need action to address the root causes.
In fact, despite the carnage that broke out Monday night, Toronto is in the minor leagues of homicide. Detroit, a much smaller city, has chalked up 184 so far this year. Chicago has had 277. The two young people killed at Monday’s house party in Toronto – Shyanne Charles, 14, and Joshua Yasay, 23 – were victims 27 and 28.
But make no mistake: In certain neighbourhoods, a war is on. It’s a war against peace and order waged by the forces of social disintegration. It’s the same war that killed Jane Creba in 2005, two people at the Eaton Centre last month and dozens of other victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The single most significant root cause is not guns or crummy housing or racism or inadequate policing or lenient sentencing or lack of jobs or insufficient social programs. It is family and community breakdown. Most especially, it’s absent fathers.
Social programs are essential. But all the social programs in the world can’t make up for family disintegration.
‘I’m a young black male myself and I was born and raised in this city,” said a man on a radio call-in show who identified himself as Andre. “There’s a lot of things that may create minority disadvantage, but the bottom line is us black people need to look at ourselves. These young black kids … there’s no outrage that a 14-year-old girl got shot, no outrage that a baby got injured. These younger kids just do not get it. No matter how much you say you can’t get a job … they just don’t get it. We have to say this has to stop.”
Another caller, an older man with a West Indian accent who identified himself as Desmond, said, “No matter how many programs you have, it doesn’t matter if they’re on the wrong path.”
Family disintegration is not a racial problem. It is an underclass problem. The evidence is plain that children born to unmarried women – of whatever race – do much worse than children with two married parents. They’re less likely to succeed in school and more likely to turn to violence (boys) and promiscuity (girls). The easiest way for them to feel like someone is to grab a gun or have a baby.
So by all means, let’s redevelop public housing, strengthen our policing, hire more youth workers, launch more employment programs, start more basketball programs, help young mothers finish school and teach them how to read to their kids. It makes us feel good to focus on these things because they are things we can actually do something about, and maybe they will make a difference. But let’s not kid ourselves: They’re Band-Aid solutions.
We have a million euphemisms for what’s gone wrong in our so-called “priority” neighbourhoods, a splendidly euphemistic term that has replaced “at-risk,” “disadvantaged,” “underprivileged” and “poor.” By now, it should be obvious that material poverty is not the problem – not when every kid in a priority neighbourhood has a cellphone and a flat-screen TV. Their poverty is of a different, more corrosive kind: a poverty of expectations, role models, structure, consistency, discipline and support.
Meantime, there is one other thing we can do. We can do a better job of keeping vicious young offenders off the streets. We can reform the system so that the Youth Criminal Justice Act no longer stands for You Can’t Jail Anyone. That is a far more promising strategy than toughening gun laws (which are already plenty tough) or banning bullets – even if it doesn’t make us feel half as good.