Gangs, the media, and the myth of community

Black Torontonians are culturally diverse: they are Jamaican and Nova Scotian, Bermudans and Afro-Brazilian, Somali and Senegalese.

The so-called “internal cleansing” of the Bandido motorcycle gang got methinking about gangs and guns in the white community. What drives so many of mycommunity members into motorcycle gangs?

Is it the failure of the white familystructure? Too many single mothers and absent fathers? What about heavy metalmusic? Surely the culture promoted by bands like Metallica and Korn have anaffect on the behaviour of white men. Maybe we should ban their concerts?

Or amI on the wrong track: Could it be my community's creeping materialism and itsshift away from family values that is the real problem at the root of themotorcycle gang phenomenon?

I ask these questions to illustrate the absurdity of the media's fixation withthe so-called “black community” when it comes to Toronto's gun violence. On TV,the radio, or in one of Toronto's daily newspapers, use of the term “blackcommunity” is pervasive.

Black Torontonians are culturally diverse: they areJamaican and Nova Scotian, Bermudans and Afro-Brazilian, Somali and Senegalese.The assumption that a culturally heterogeneous black population constitutes a“community” has negative consequences for how Toronto — its citizens,politicians, and police — deal with gun violence.

Sure, there are commonexperiences that link black Torontonians by virtue of their skin colour. You'remore likely to be pulled over by a police officer or face racism in the schoolor workplace if you're black. But the shared experience of racism is not enoughto constitute a community out of a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.And this myth of “community” has functioned to put the burden of responsibilityfor gun violence onto black Torontonians. A black Torontonian is no moreresponsible for gangs and guns than I am for the actions of the Bandidos or theHells Angels.

The myth of community is perpetuated by the media's tireless search for theauthentic voice of “black leadership.” Who the media anoints with this titleoften depends on the message they're seeking to convey to the public.Throughout this recent period of gun violence the Toronto Sun has turned to afew black church leaders whose mantra of family values and community decay fitsperfectly with the self-help conservatism of the newspaper's editorial board.

When no black ministers are available for comment, the Sun turns to otherso-called “black community leaders” such as Toronto city councilor MichaelThompson. Surely, the Sun surmises, a black man who's grown up in the squalorof Scarborough has special insight into the behaviour of troublesome blackyouth. To the Sun's delight, Thompson's contribution to the gun violence debatewas to recommend a stop-and-search policy that accepts racial profiling as alegitimate police strategy.

In the 1990s Dudley Laws was the media's go-to man for the authentic blackperspective. In recent months, youth activist Kofi Hope (of Black Youth AgainstViolence) has emerged as one the media's stars of black authenticity. TheToronto Star profiled Hope as one of the city's “10 (citizens) to watch” in2006. Hope helped organize the BLING (Bring Love In, Not Guns) conference, awelcomed initiative which brought youth together to discuss issues of gangs,guns and violence.

Although Hope advocates for more participation of youth inthe development of their own communities, according to his Star profile he alsosees the rise in gun violence amongst young blacks as linked to consumerism andhip-hop culture and the shunning of community and family values. This issomething to be proved sociologically, not taken as truth. Unfortunately,activists like Hope and Laws have little control over how their positions arearticulated by the media.

The authenticity game reached preposterous new heights when Premier DaltonMcGuinty grandstanded with Boston minister Rev. Eugene Rivers, who came toToronto to share his knowledge about black-on-black (never referred to aspoor-on-poor) violence. After meeting with Rivers and other members ofToronto's “black faith community,” McGuinty stated that he “was very heartenedthat representatives of the faith community have decided that they're going totake on still more responsibility for the black community when it comes toaddressing the issue of crime and guns.”

The premier seems quite willing todownload his own government's responsibility onto a “community” that will cleanup its own proverbial house and take ownership of social problems.

What the right Reverend Rivers said to The Toronto Star must have been music toMcGuinty's neoliberal ears: “This is a family conversation. It requires thatthe black community come together, stop making excuses, move beyond rhetoric,the race card and focuses on how do we as a community become more accountable?”Such a statement could have come from the Sun's editorial pages or some otherconservative commentator.

Activists like Hope are stuck in a catch-22. By organizing a conference such asBLING or speaking on behalf of a “community,” many well-intentioned campaignershave accepted the media's framing of gangs and guns as a black problem. Thisdoes little to challenge racist views amongst the general public that are inpart generated and perpetuated by the media's coverage of Toronto's gunviolence.

Yet if there is no attempt to address the social problems facedspecifically by black youth because of their skin colour, then racism andsocial exclusion will go unaddressed. Racism fuels higher drop-out rates amongblack high school students. In addition, black Torontonians, especially blackyouth, are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the city's poor andunemployed.

But take all the articles and reports about Toronto's gun violence,replace the words black with poor, race with class, and an alternative pictureof the issues emerges; one which challenges the frame in which manyTorontonians now think about gangs and guns and one which also challenges theidea that a “community” should take ownership of social problems.

No whiteTorontonian will be approached by the media for special insight into theBandido massacre or why white men participate in motorcycle gangs. As it sitsnow, in the eyes of the public, gangs and guns are a “black” problem. We need towork to disarticulate the link between race and crime, while continuing toinsist on the racialized nature of poverty and social exclusion that can leadto despair and criminal activity.

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