CHICAGO — My family and I went to Cook County Jail on Christmas morning, as we do every year. We went to share the promise of the Messiah's birth. We departed with our hearts heavy at the sight of hundreds of African-Americans sentenced to jail for crimes committed mostly against other African-Americans. They missed the hope of the new life. They're still locked out of the inn, condemned to the stable, bearing the scars of occupation and rejection.
These men look physically strong, but they are emotionally wounded, casualties of hard lives with limited options. Too many African-Americans grow up sentenced to premature death. Young men in Bangladesh are more likely to reach the age of 40 than black males in Harlem. Almost half of all African-American babies are born into poverty, many scarred by low birth weight and inadequate nutrition and medical care. If they survive, they enter a culture that glorifies crime and violence. Homicide is the largest cause of death among young African-American males.
There are more black men in prison than in college. For many, jail is a step up in life. It offers heat, food, medical care, a roof over their heads. They live with some discipline, without guns and with less chance of dying.
There is a terrible sense of permissiveness about black-on-black crime. Black murder is becoming acceptable, unalarming, even among blacks. For example, when 30 unarmed Ku Klux Klansmen marched in Washington a few weeks ago, they attracted 3,000 angry protesters, mostly black. It cost the police $900,000 to guard the Klan's right to march. If one of those Klan members had killed a black man in Washington, angry protests would have been ignited across the country. It would have been a federal crime. Yet the jails are filled not with Klansmen who kill blacks, but with blacks who kill blacks. These killings are accepted as routine. There are no marches against them. They are not a federal offense. They don't make the news.
We cannot allow killing to become routine. When a black is killed by a black wearing a black jacket, it must be as offensive to the government and the community as when a black is killed by a white man wearing a white sheet.
Who will stop the killing? In the end, only African-Americans can break this cycle of violence. During slavery, the burden of emancipation fell upon the enslaved. During colonialism, the colonized Ihad to fight for independence. During segregation, the protest movement was forged by the victims. To stop the killing and the drugs, the burden is on those who suffer the most.
Against the odds, African-Americans must make tough life choices with few options. Many do without the acclaim that they deserve. For example, African-Americans are a disproportionate number of those brave men and women whose lives are on the line in the Saudi desert. The military option offers a way out.
"You were born to lives with limited options," I told the Cook County inmates, "but that is no excuse. In football, when a runner is surrounded three yards short of a first down, his options are limited. It is unacceptable to run out of bounds or to run backward or to fumble the ball. We expect him to put his head down and drive, to make the hard choice. Killing each other is not the tough choice; escaping on drugs is not the tough choice."
Too many of these strong young men have crushed egos, zero-based self-esteem. If "I ain't worth nothin' then my death means nothin'." Zero from zero makes zero. If "I ain't worth nothin', you ain't worth nothin' either," so shooting you or making a baby with you and abandoning it means nothing. Nothing from nothing makes nothing. Yet it is these men who are essential if the killing is to end. "You are the veterans and the victims of this culture of guns and drugs," I told them. "You are needed. The young headed this way need you to warn them to change direction. Your babies need you. Your mothers terrified of violence need you. I need you. If you were not drugged up or killing each other, you would be fighting for your dignity. If you won't claim it, no one will hand it to you."
As the new year dawns, things are getting worse for the young born to hard lives. As a country we could offer help. We could stop the race-baiting that preys on the misery. We could make certain that jail does not offer the best housing, the only medical care or job training. In the end, however, no one will act to end the plague of black-on-black violence unless African-Americans resolve to end it. What better resolution for the new year?