The Indiana Black Expo shootings have cut this city to the quick. As if the surreal terror of the primary incident – a kid with a gun shooting into a celebratory crowd in the heart of downtown on a Saturday night – weren't bad enough, what happened also tore at the city's carefully cultivated, family-friendly image and prompted a new round of hemming and hawing about race.
City leaders seem to have settled on a measured, steadfast tone for their public utterances regarding the shootings. This is a city whose life depends on selling its downtown as a safe, hospitable location for conventions; there's a Super Bowl coming in 2012. It's important to keep the Black Expo violence boxed into a very particular context so that potential clients don't get the impression that our supposedly revitalized downtown is turning into a shooting gallery.
But that context presents another problem: race. Specifically, why it is so many of the city's public safety issues are located in a portion of the African-American community. Here, the official tone betrays a certain exasperation. While making what's become the standard pro forma call for personal responsibility in cases that appear to be beyond the control of a society that puts individual freedom first, The Star editorialized: "It is time to put into practice the simple lesson that when all rules are off, ruin follows. How many times, and at what cost, must the lesson be taught?"
The Rev. Charles Harrison, founder of the Ten Point Coalition, was more direct: "I am sick and tired of us making excuses for some of our young people," he told The Star.
The practical necessity of maintaining downtown's spit-and-polish image on the one hand, while mindfully navigating racial sensitivities, prompted a pair of predictable initiatives.
Public Safety Director Frank Straub proposed creating "safe zones" for downtown events. These zones would cordon off large sections of real estate for so-called celebrations so that all who enter can be searched for illegal firearms or other weapons. The ACLU expressed reservations about this, as it could infringe on personal liberties, including the right to bear arms. One way or another, it is likely you can expect that attending mass gatherings downtown will feel more like a trip to the airport in the near future.
As to dealing with the racially-charged issue of black-on-black violence, Indiana Black Expo, in cooperation with other city leaders, punted. Tanya Bell, Black Expo's CEO, announced the formation of a task force. Bell said the task force would make recommendations about how to make Black Expo safer, while also looking "at the root causes of youth violence."
While one can hope for something like a lightning bolt, it's doubtful this task force will have anything new to tell us about the propensity of gang bangers to shoot one another. But that doesn't mean it can't push the city's dialogue about some important issues.
Although there are people who would prefer to view
black-on-black violence through a racial lens, I hope the task force will beg
to differ. The violence that's eating at our inner city and, sometimes,
spilling over into places like downtown, has more to do with our creation of
ghettoes dominated by the ill-educated and the unemployable.
We set the stage for this situation with court-ordered busing that killed neighborhood schools and prompted the flight of the Black middle class from neighborhoods that were inequitably red-lined and segregated, but also had the virtue of being socially diverse. Deciding to bus kids instead of improving the schools where they lived amounted to a kind of cultural imperialism that also served to isolate the least mobile members of some neighborhoods.
High-handed cultural attitudes were later perpetuated through a spongy doctrine of multiculturalism that was too often used to justify dysfunctional behavior like male promiscuity, children having children, and gangs. Self-destruction became hard to criticize and easy to ignore when it was provided the veneer of authenticity or, failing that, excused as being part of a "culture" of poverty.
Confusing dysfunction with culture might, at first, have seemed to offer a path to improved self-esteem and empowerment. But all it accomplished was to romanticize the underclass and provide policymakers an excuse to avoid coming to grips with historic patterns of injustice and neglect regarding the most impoverished members of the community. And so we like to say we have difficulty talking about race, when what we really have is a deep-seated unwillingness to share our collective wealth with poor people.
What we will share is an interpretation of the Constitution that's been elasticized to the point of allowing, in its name, the easy distribution and acquisition of firearms. One kid in the Black Expo crowd was reportedly carrying a loaded AK-47. This is a form of empowerment no one, black or white, needs. If the Black Expo task force tackles nothing else, I hope it lends to its voice to the need to stem this tide.