Much has been said about the fact that the three youths shot to death in Toronto in the past few weeks were all a mere 15 years old. Quite a bit has been said about the fact that they all died in public housing. Very little has been said about another fact – all three were black.
Street violence is taking a tragic toll on black men and boys in this city. Both as victims and as perpetrators, they are caught up all too often. If you pick up the paper or turn on the computer after reports of a shooting, stabbing or violent robbery, chances are the face staring out at you will be black.
Pockets of the city where unemployment and dropout rates are high, where many sons grow up without a father, where gangs and guns are all around, have become dangerous traps for what social workers call at-risk youth. More often than not, they turn on each other. Black-on-black violence is a disfiguring stain on the face of the city's multicultural success. It is an uncomfortable truth that, as a welcoming and liberal city, we prefer to ignore. The political class won't talk about it for fear of being labelled racist. The media are almost as cowed.
In days of coverage after the killing of Jarvis Montaque, the latest of three 15-year-olds to be gunned down, it was almost never mentioned. The first honest reference I heard was on Wednesday's Metro Morning , the CBC Radio show that has been bolder than most at exploring the roots of this sad phenomenon. "Why are we losing young black men in the city?" asked host Matt Galloway.
It is an urgent question, but you won't often hear it asked, much less answered. Politicians prefer the euphemism "youth violence." Michael Thompson, Toronto's only black city councillor, told me that it's not just black Torontonians who are affected. Even in the three recent killings, "I think it's really about young residents of Toronto who happen to be black." He said the real problem is the easy availability of firearms.
Alvin Curling, a former provincial cabinet minister who helped write a report on youth violence, told The Globe and Mail's Sunny Dhillon that it's not a black problem. It's a societal and community problem, with roots in poverty and mental-health issues.
Caution and sensitivity about this problem are understandable, even necessary. No one wants to be accused of stigmatizing a whole community because of a troubled subsection. It should go without saying that for every black youth that gets in trouble, there are many more who are doing fine. But caution too often becomes denial.
It is hard to to admit that the city that calls diversity its strength is failing at least one important group. "At no point did the government say, 'We have to tackle this problem in Toronto and the GTA of African-Canadian youth killing each other," said Knia Singh, of the African Canadian Coalition of Community Organizations. "People were scared to say it was a black problem before, but we want it to be identified as such because it is."
After all, he said, "It's not white kids killing white kids. It's not Chinese kids killing Chinese kids. It's not even black kids killing white kids or Chinese kids or vice versa. It's mostly black kids killing black kids."
As long we keep ducking that fact, he said, we won't be able to find solutions or aim resources where they are most needed: at troubled black youth.
Just what those solutions are is hard to say. Dozens of worthy programs and heaps of earnest reports have fallen short. Mr. Singh, a University of Toronto student and former Green Party candidate, thinks that the roots of the problem lie in the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism that pigeonholes young black men as losers or troublemakers. The last thing he wants to do is contribute to that stereotyping. "This is not an excuse for people to come out and say, 'Look, blacks are killing blacks so they're all criminals and they're all gangsters.' " Instead, "This is an opportunity to say, 'Blacks are killing blacks. Why?' "
Until we grapple with that question instead of tiptoeing around it, we won't have even a ghost of a chance at progress.