"The truth about youth and violence"

January 3, 2011

Ever since I started writing about the killing of Jeremiah Sterling, my friend Brendan Shiller has been pushing back, telling me that my because I focus so much on the actual violence and loss, I’m contributing to the impression that violence is greater now, when in fact the murder rate in Chicago is at a 45 year low.

A criminal lawyer with his own practice and a longtime community activist, Brendan knows what he’s talking about. And I don’t really argue his point. My contention is that violence is still too high, and that African-American males are disproportionate victims (I know he doesn’t argue this point either).

But I also know there’s something to his concern about giving the wrong impression. So when he sent me (and others) a New Year’s note about the matter, I thought I should just let him have his say.

Here it is, in its entirety:

“The reality about youth and violent crime is that the violent crime rate in this city has not been lower in nearly 5 decades. 

“It is also a reality that if you are currently a teenager (meaning you were born sometime in the early to late-1990s), you are less likely to commit a violent act and less likely to be a victim of a violent act than those born during the early to late 1980s, those born during the early to late 1970s (my compatriots), those born during the early to late 1960s, those born during the early to late 1950s, and even those born during the early to late 1940s (my parents generation).

“It is also a reality that despite the constant drumbeat of news that portrays youth violence (often written by some of my very good friends in their media work and duplicated on Facebook pages), we are living in a less violent time than anyone under the age of 55 can remember--even if they have a faulty memory that is influenced by both nostalgia, the current 24-hour news cycle, and interweb connectedness.

“It is also a reality that it is a disservice to everyone in general, but to my children and their friends in particular, to continue to portray the least self-destructive and most productive generation in five decades as violent.

“This does not take away from the physical and emotional pain people suffer from violence, or that they suffer when they know people who are victims (or even perpetrators) of violence. This does not change the reality that violence occurs. The overemphasis and constant coverage of violence, and the editorializing, demagoguery, and emotional reaction that accompanies each and every media story, blog writing and internet post regarding youth and violence, however, distorts the reality about the current generation of youth.

“This year, let’s celebrate the great work of our grandparents, parents, and ourselves, in participating in the creation of a great generation of youth. Happy new year!”

(The image is from a project called The Killing Season, which tracks and photographs the killing site of every murder in Chicago in 2010.)