The West Indian Day Parade and its pre-dawn “J’ouvert” revelries have taken place every year on Labor Day in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn since the 1960s. Modeled on the traditional Carnival festivities of the Caribbean islands, the parade includes revelers painted black and red to evoke the devil, mas bands dancing to soca, calypso and steel drums, masqueraders dressed in elaborate feather and sequined costumes, and plenty of Caribbean food. Monday’s event concluded a series of activities over the Labor Day weekend this year celebrating West Indian culture.
As an annual attendee myself, I was deeply saddened to hear of the violence that took place near and around the parade routes, both during and after it—not to mention the spate of shootings across New York City during the holiday weekend. All in all, from Friday through Monday, 52 shootings claimed the lives of 13 and wounded 54 others, according to police data. In a particularly devastating incident, a shootout on Park Place and Franklin Avenue around 9 p.m. on Monday left two men and an innocent bystander dead, in addition to wounding two officers. Fifty-six-year-old Denise Gay was sitting on her stoop with her daughter when she was struck by a stray bullet in a dispute between Leroy Webster and Eusi Johnson, both former convicts who lived nearby.
In processing this violence, I was disheartened to hear people blaming the West Indian parade, which I and many others experienced as a celebration that brought together the neighborhood’s diverse communities—with roots in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, and Haiti, to name just a few—to recreate a Caribbean tradition in New York.
I also tried to come up with an explanation—and perhaps more naively, a solution. What caused these acts of violence? Why were my neighbors and peers caught in crossfire and engaged in violence when I led a life of comparative security and ease? What could be done to prevent similar incidents in the future?
Part of the answer lies in something very concrete, and which Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already pointed out. There are simply too many guns on the streets of this city, and federal gun control laws must be strengthened. “This is a national problem requiring national leadership,” Bloomberg said. Though New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, if rules remain relatively lax in other states, it’s easy to purchase guns elsewhere and just drive into New York and sell them illegally.
But something that isn’t talked about quite as often is the larger challenge of the disparate opportunities available to youth in New York and the U.S. generally. Webster, 32, was an ex-convict with a history of arrests dating back 15 years—meaning that the cycle of violence had begun for him as a teenager, as it does for many others today.
Though there are a number of contributing factors, youth who lack educational and economic opportunities are the ones most likely to fall prey to drug use and/or violence. In New York City and across the U.S., it is black and Latino youth who disproportionately fall into this category. Although the city’s white, black and Latino youth populations are approximately equal in size, more than 90 percent of all young murder victims and perpetrators in the city’s five boroughs are black and Latino, as are almost all of those admitted to the city’s children and family services facilities.
And nationwide, the achievement gap between white students and students of color persists. Between the first National Assessment of Educational Progress in math (1990) and reading (1992) and the most recent (2009), there was no significant change in the achievement gap between Hispanic and white fourth- or eighth-graders in either subject and, though the gap between black students and white students narrowed over that time period, white students scored at least 26 points higher than black students (on a 0-500 scale) in each subject at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Right now, the average black or Latino kid graduating from high school in the U.S. has the same skill set as a white student graduating from the eighth grade.
This situation is not unique to the United States. Racial and ethnic minorities and those belonging to lower socio-economic groups in Latin America—including the indigenous in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, and Afro-descendants in Brazil—consistently perform below their peers in reading, math and science.
So long as we fail to provide youth, especially black and Latino youth, with the same educational and economic opportunities as their neighbors and peers, violence is likely to persist. I am optimistic, however, about the potential of some initiatives to impact specifically these groups and to address the structural causes of violence, like the Harlem Children’s Zone—a nonprofit organization providing early childhood development, charter-school education, social services, and community support to families within a 97-block area of Harlem—and Apollo 20, an experiment in Houston public schools to test whether the methods and successes of charter schools can be replicated in a regular public school district to close the achievement gap.
More recently, in launching the Young Men’s Initiative, Mayor Bloomberg has committed to giving New York City’s young black and Latino men real opportunities. The three-year, $127-million public-private initiative, to which Bloomberg has donated $30 million of his own money, will provide mentoring and literacy services, tie the city’s assessment of school performance to the academic success of black and Latino boys, connect public housing residents with employment opportunities, and open new probation offices and retrain officers to reduce recidivism, among other things.
Though it will take time, perhaps even a generation, for these initiatives to demonstrate an effect, they and the policy and program innovations they inspire are our only hope for ending the violence among our neighbors and within our communities.
*Nina Agrawal is associate editor of Americas Quarterly and policy associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.