While the country -- and South Carolina, in particular -- is once again debating racism in America, NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday offered a video of men in prison expressing regret for their own gun violence. All of the men in the video are black...
“The circumstances you are about to see are very different from the racist violence in Charleston,” Meet the Press host Chuch Todd said in the introduction to the video.
“But their lessons remain important, and we simply ask you to look at this as a colorblind issue,” he said....
It's an odd moment for this video to be shown. It's not as if the clip just happened to be hot off the presses when, by astonishing coincidence, a gun crime made front-page news. In fact, the video went public months ago -- a longer version of it went up on YouTube in February, when it was also the subject of a New York Times story.
Here's the February video. It's part of a TED Talks-linked project called Voices from Within. It was presented at an event called TEDx Sing Sing.
The Times story explains how the video came to be made:
The video began as a partnership between Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner for the State Department of Correctional Services, and Michael Capra, the superintendent of Sing Sing, to make a “groundbreaking project to end gun violence,” said Superintendent Capra, who invited Dan Slepian, a producer at the NBC News program “Dateline,” and Rob Allen, his film editor associate, to help make the piece as a volunteer project.As the Times story notes, it's now being shown to inner-city kids in New York -- and you have to wonder how much positive effect it's likely to have:
The teenagers inside the precinct house seemed transfixed by the video, but were not exactly forthcoming when asked afterward to relate it to growing up in Brownsville, which has one of the highest rates in New York City of young men winding up incarcerated, or on either end of a gun.On Meet the Press, David Brooks, who was asked by Todd to make the first comment after the clip ended, suggested that the video revealed gun violence to be the result of low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness. Todd raised the issue of "character," of course:
They were finally coaxed into conversation with pizza and the persuasiveness of Chief Jaffe, who used a tough-but-tender approach.
CHUCK TODD:In the Times story, however, the kids talk about carrying guns as a logical response to real issues of personal safety in their neighborhoods:
David, you write a lot about character and culture in general.... The political conversation is one conversation on guns. This is a different way to have it.
First, thanks for coming to me first. That was tough. That was powerful. You know, I think what comes out of it: You got so many young men who feel psychologically weak. And then the gun is the source of power. It's all they got. They in some cases don't have educations, don't have jobs, don't have privilege. And then the gun becomes the power source. We even saw this in this Charleston's kid's photo of him with the guns. It has the psychological effect. "The gun is my thing. The gun is my thing"
When that one man described the security he felt holding it.
Yeah. And so that's a powerful look at inside the mind of how the gun becomes this psychological totem, this thing of who I am. And it's almost as if using the gun is going to be the thing that's going to be my expression of how I make a difference in the world. And that has a distorting cultural effect of just the physical presence of a gun in the hands of someone who feels he has nothing else.
Paul Maxwell, 18, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said he had been arrested multiple times on “petty offenses.” He related a recent altercation in which another teenager tried to embarrass him. If it had escalated, “it’s war,” said Mr. Maxwell, who added that he refrained.It’s either we protect ourselves, or nobody going to protect us. That's a point made in a recent book by Jill Leowy called Ghettoside. She cites research showing that, across cultures, races, and eras, communities self-police when the legally constituted authorities don't do the job. In minority communities in America right now, the police generally believe it's their job to protect whites from non-whites, not protect law-abiding non-whites from criminals. That's the mandate cops have from government officials. This doesn't justify the gun violence that results -- but if this is an unhealthy response, it's still a response to a legitimate problem.
“You should’ve hit him,” said Isaiah, 15, a high school sophomore.
That might lead to an arrest, Chief Jaffe said.
“No one’s going to snitch,” Marquis, 15, said.
Isaiah said, “We don’t care if we go to jail, because we lived and they didn’t.” Some teenagers did not want their full names published for fear of reprisals in the neighborhood for speaking to the police and to the press.
Chief Jaffe asked the teenagers how many had been arrested and had been around guns. Most said they had. They said guns provided protection in rough areas, such as the Howard Houses.
“I could get shot going home right now,” one teenager said.
A 16-year-old high school sophomore from Brownsville said, “It’s either we protect ourselves, or nobody going to protect us.”
Marquis described his attitude toward an attacker as: “I always put my family first because I don’t care about their family.”
And then we have a group of well-meaning whites making a video like this and compelling inner-city kids to watch it. It's reminiscent of the 1978 documentary Scared Straight and the many social programs and video sequels it inspired. Scared Straight was far more confrontational, of course:
Scared Straight programs also seem to be useless:
Anthony Petrosino and a team of researchers from the Campbell Collaboration, an international research network, analyzed the findings from evaluations of nine scared straight-type programs. In contrast to the claims of proponents, Mr. Petrosino and his colleagues found that these programs did not deter teenage participants from offending; in fact, they were more likely to offend in the future. Across the evaluated programs, participants were up to 28 percent more likely to offend than youths who didn't participate.Voices from Within is more benign -- but it seems just as naive. (In the Voices from Within clip above, Dan Slepian actually tries to imagine that his video might change the world by being posted on the front page of TED.com -- as if that's a regular Internet stop for young would-be gun criminals.)
And what the hell this has to do with Dylann Root, who went looking for reasons to feel besieged and victimized, I don't know.