Will Newtown, Conn., Be The Breaking Point?
Children are being shot around the country; can we do something, now, to make it stop?
When she thinks about the shooting, Shianne Norman knows there is no answer to the “why?” and so instead goes back into the “what ifs?” What if things had somehow unfolded differently? Would her little boy, the one who loved pancakes and bananas and fighting with his sister, then still be alive?
“This is, I hope, the worst I will ever feel in my life,” Norman told the "New York Times." “Please don’t tell me my son is in a better place. Though it’s true, I wanted him to be with me. Don’t tell me to be thankful for the time I had, because I want more.”
The country is consumed with the deaths of the 20 children, ages 6 and 7, who were killed Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
On Friday morning, parents received calls instructing them to go to the school, and they waited at a nearby fire station for news. As the hours passed, most had tearful reunions with their children; but finally, officials came into the room to say that there were no more children to come. There would be no more reunions. Parents began to wail.
Norman knows these parents’ anguish well. But she is not from a tony Connecticut suburb, she lives in a New York neighborhood 65 miles south—the Bronx. Norman’s 4-year-old son, Lloyd Morgan Jr., was shot and killed July 22, 2012, as he played on a basketball court, at a memorial event for Troynisha Harris, an 18-year-old who had been fatally stabbed at the playground two years earlier.
“This ought to be a wake-up call for all of us,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said during his eulogy for Lloyd this summer. “Our babies are dying.”
But it seems Lloyd’s death didn’t wake anyone up. Nor did the deaths of the hundreds of children who have been killed in the Bronx, South Side Chicago, and other urban neighborhoods this year. There was no tearful president on TV, no stream of messages on Facebook and Twitter listing the names of the dead or calling for gun control. The deaths of Lloyd Morgan, of 7-year old Heaven Sutton, who was shot as she sold candy in her Chicago neighborhood, of others like them, passed almost without notice.
And here, I think, the question is why?
According to statistics from the Children’s Defense Fund, on average, 3,000 children die each year due to gun violence. That’s one child killed every three hours, every single day. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the total child population in 2008 and 2009, and yet accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths.
So why, given the 3,000 children who are killed each year, does the shooting in Connecticut have such an impact on us? Several of my friends mentioned hugging their children extra tight when they came home from school on Friday. Before the day was done, they had signed petitions and donated money to the Brady Fund. But by June of this year, 24 children had been killed in Chicago alone, due to gun violence, and I didn’t see the same sense of outrage and grief. So what is it about this particular case? Is it the fact that 20 children were killed at one time? Is it that this was at an elementary school, a place we send our children expecting that they'll be safe? Is it because this was a neighborhood that looks much like the ones the more fortunate among us live in, which makes us think that even though we live in places that are good and safe, we too can be affected by gun violence?
First, let me say that we should grieve, this shooting should be the call to action that it has become, and I believe that something needs to be done so that children, whether they live in Newtown or the Bronx, can be safe. It is just that my grief was just as great when I heard about little Lloyd being gunned down on a playground as it was when I first got the details about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a mother, I imagined how I would feel had I been Norman, forced to bury my son before his life had really begun, just as I teared up watching Robbie Parker remember his daughter Emilie, who was killed Friday, admiring the grace with which he spoke, the compassion he had, even in the face of such horror, as he offered his prayers to the family of the shooter.
But for most, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary has had more of an impact than any of the other deaths that have come before, and I asked some friends why that was.
“I think it's 20 small children, most of them in one classroom, as I understand it, in one small moment of time, in one school, in one neighborhood. So many lives in one place changed in an instant…I think it's all of that—combined with the prior shootings that we know resulted in no change. And now we have to lose kindergartners??? For what?” wrote one friend.
My friend Michele, who works at a school and lives in Maryland with her two young sons wrote: “I think it's because school is a place that you expect your kids to be safe in, especially an elementary school. It hits home because folks understand that violence can reach even them...I think it would have been the same reaction if someone went into an inner city school and gunned down 20 kindergartners,” though she thought things would have been different if the children had been older: “I think, in general, folks think it isn't as tragic when violence happens in an inner city neighborhood. My impression is that more affluent folks feel like violence is a hazard of being poor.”
And then there was this response, which bluntly stated a sentiment shared by many, but rarely discussed:
“What color were the victims in CT vs Chicago and the Bronx? Caucasians tend to have a higher base retail worth versus minorities who are considered expendable.”
Studies have shown that race does in fact play a part when it comes to empathy. A study done by Joan Y. Chiao, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, showed that people are more likely to empathize with and want to help people who look like them.
"It's just that feeling of ‘That person is like me,’ or ‘That person is similar to me,’" Chiao said. "That experience can really lead to what we're calling ‘extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation.’ It's empathy and altruistic motivation above and beyond what you would do for another human.”
My hope is that we have finally reached a point where we can push beyond that, so that we can empathize and fight for change regardless of the race or socioeconomic class of the children being killed. We might be more used to seeing the faces of murdered little black children on TV than we are seeing little white children gunned down, but as my friend Jackie put it: “Other lives lost, no matter where, are not any less important. When they happen, one at a time, we're used to that. That happens everywhere all the time. What doesn't happen everywhere, all the time, are these mass shootings. All of it is senseless. All of it is stupid. And all of it requires change -- a multitude of change.”