Fist stick knife gun, Geoffrey Canada (1995) - Violence and Youth in America

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        In Fist stick knife gun, Geoffrey Canada (1995) traces his own encounters with urban violence as he was growing up in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood in the Bronx during the 1960s.  Canada (1995) paints a vivid picture of a community of children and teenagers whose conduct was governed by codes of violence.  He traces the progression of his own violent behavior as well as those of his contemporaries.  Despite his own background and experiences in the violent world of the New York urban ghetto of the 1960s and the Boston urban ghetto (where Canada worked as a teacher) of the late-1970s, Canada (1995) is stunned by how much violence has escalated when he returns as a teacher and community activist to New York City in the 1980s.  By the early 1990s, Canada (1995) viewed his former neighborhoods as nothing less than “war zones” in which the primary combatants, children and teens, engaged in lethal violence.

        Canada’s (1995) perception that youth violence had escalated significantly in the 1980s and 1990s over its level in the 1960s and 1970s is born out by national crime statistics.    According to Brownstein (date), “from 1988 to 1992, juvenile violent crime increased by 38 percent, reaching 198 arrest per 100, 000 juveniles in 1992” (pg. 113).  From this perspective, Brownstein contents that “juvenile crime is on the rise” (Ibid, 113).  Futhermore, FBI statistics, between 1985 and 1995, show the overall violent crime rage among adolescents increased by 75%, including a 97% increase in aggravated assaults and a 150% increase in murders (Borduin & Schaeffer, 1998, p. 146).  As Canada (1995) noted in his book, the jump in youth gun violence has been particularly pronounced.  In his book Social Reality of Violence and Violent Crime, Zimring (1998), reported that “offenders under 21 made up 26 percent of all arrests in in 1995; offenders under 18 made up 15 percent (p. 19, 21, & 22).  Conversely, Whitaker (2000) reports that gun killings by people aged 18 to 24 increased by 50% between 1980 and 1997 and that people in that age group were also the most likely victims of the shootings (p. 29).  In addition, surveys indicate that gun ownership is frighteningly common among today’s youth.  National surveys conducted in the mid-1990s indicated that as many as 11.4% of high school males owned a gun and that 15% of high school teens (male and female) had carried a handgun to school in the previous year (Borduin & Schaeffer, 1998, p. 147).  

        While current national crime statistics indicate that male ethnic minorities are more likely to witness and experience violence than White youth, and that inner-city youth are exposed to higher levels of violence than young people living in suburban or rural areas, the escalation in youth violence is by no means confined to the ethnic inner-city ghetto (Stevenson, Herrero-Taylor, et al., 2002, p. 474).  The wave of school shootings in the middle and late 1990s (e.g., Columbine; Springfield, Oregon, etc.) demonstrated that youth gun violence was also a reality in predominantly white, middle-class suburban and rural regions of the country (Pollack, 2001; Connor, 2002).  As Connor (2002) notes, “aggression and antisocial behavior in children and adolescents are central issues in our time” (p. 1).  Likewise, Pollack (2001) comments that the overall increase in youth violence and the string of school shootings has raised “fears of an emotional and mortal epidemic” (p. 1).  

        Using Canada’s (1995) case study in violence as a basis for further discussion and analysis, this paper provides an overview and analysis of the causes of violence and strategies for preventing and controlling violence.  In keeping with the themes of Canada’s (1995) book, the analysis focuses on youth violence (causes and prevention and control, along with reasons behind the escalation in violence) and on community-based strategies for controlling and preventing such violence.  

The Causes of Violence: The View from the African-American Ghetto

        Canada’s (1995) self-proclaimed “personal history of violence in America” focuses almost exclusively on the culture of violence in ethnic-minority dominated urban ghettos.  (In one section of the book, Canada discusses violence in a predominately white lower-class school district in Boston in the late 1970s and draws comparisons with the violence in the minority-dominated ghettos of New York.)   Canada is himself an African-American male and by his own account, the vast majority of his friends, associates, schoolmates, mentors and enemies are also African-American.   Thus, while his history provides a valuable bird’s eye view of youth violence in an African-American ghetto, and while his analysis has obvious relevance to any study of youth violence in America, it is reasonable to question the extent to which his theories on the causes of violence can be reliably generalized to other settings (i.e., especially violence in middle- and upper-middle class settings).  Keeping this caution in mind, the following provides a synopsis of Canada’s (1995) theories of violence causation.

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Canada’s (1995) essential thesis on violence causation is that violence is a learned response to the realities of a harsh environment.  Canada (1995) utterly rejects any consideration of the possible genetic or biological roots of violence:

There is no way that I can buy the theory that humans

have some genetic predisposition to violence.  I know

better.  I remember clearly the time in my life that I

knew nothing of violence and how hard I worked later

to learn to become capable of it.  My initial belief that

violence is learned has been reinforced by ...

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