OPINION: It’s time to unwrap the language of gun violence

July 30, 2019 Shanduke McPhatter
Shanduke McPhatter is the CEO and founder of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes Inc. (G-MACC Inc). Photo courtesy of McPhatter
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The term itself evokes an immediate perception. Those involved — victim or offender — had it coming.

Is there any wonder that the term is so freely ascribed to persons of color and their neighborhoods? We hear it all the time: A shooting in a predominantly black neighborhood is automatically attributed to some sort of phantom gang activities. It doesn’t have to be proven; it doesn’t even have to be true. But because it happened in a certain “type” of place, to a certain “type” of people — it could only mean one thing.

When the same set of circumstances occurs elsewhere, it’s described as a mass shooting, evoking sympathy for the fallen and some strange sort of empathy — like Stockholm Syndrome — for the violator.

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News outlets across the country run headlines on mental illness and how the after-effects of childhood bullying turned the perpetrator from shy kid a mass murderer. Those affected are mourned — without the unfounded stigma of being “gang-related.”

The differing factors in those two scenarios? Race and location. Nothing more, nothing less.

All of which brings us to Brownsville.

For decades, the Brownsville community has held an “Old Timers Day” festival. It’s a time when children flood the park with parents in tow, laughing and filling their bellies with hotdogs and hamburgers. Residents of the neighborhood, then and now, reunite with memories of the good old days. Music fills the air as attendees dance the night away. Comradery is the overall theme and has been for over 20 years. That changed over the weekend when gunfire erupted, leaving one dead and 11 injured. Instantly, an event that has been held in the highest regard was reduced to just another gang-related incident.

The problem here is the media’s lack of concern for how it reports on black culture. By labeling a shooting in a predominantly black neighborhood “gang-related,” the media has single-handedly shaped the public’s perception of the incident.

Not only does the unfounded description criminalize the neighborhood, it dehumanizes the victims. They’re no longer seen as innocent bystanders, caught in an unfortunate turn of events. Instead, they’re categorized with an affiliation to gang activity. And we, the very people who contribute toward positively uplifting our communities, are forced to accept the misrepresentation of truth.

While not condoning the horrific violence that occurred in Brownsville, it’s imperative that we point out the difference in reporting when something happens in our neighborhoods versus the same incident occurring in white suburbia. The actions are the same, but because of geography and demographics, one is “gang-related” while the other a tragedy.

In order to have an unbiased view, one must separate the incident from the location. Unfortunately, mislabeling a tragedy won’t help to build the lines of communication. Instead of fighting for justice, it leaves all involved to fight for their reputations and to counter the public’s guided misperception of their gang-related happenstance.

We can’t expect to ever be depicted without the stereotypical references until we demand a change in the narrative. Let’s focus on why the shooting occurred instead of placing the entire event and its victims into a little box that we leave in the corner of a room with a big red bow, labeled “Gang-Related.”

Those boxes will never get opened. They’ll never be offered the attention they deserve. They’ll never be seen as anything positive — simply because of how the box is labeled. Who knows? The box could contain something that might very well change the world. But we’ll never know that. Why? Because it’s “gang-related” — and we all know anyone gang-related must have had it coming to them.

Shanduke McPhatter is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes Inc. (GMACC). He is a former Bloods gang member. 

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