I met a young man on my commute home this week. While standing in line to board a bus, he started a conversation. As this sort of spontaneous exchange happens often with me, this experience will not surprise those who know me well. I like to attribute the phenomenon to my skills as a researcher or a genetic trait gifted by my gregarious mother. But the fact is this: I will talk to practically anyone. I welcome dialogue, which is evidenced by the varied and sometimes animated conversations I have during my daily Bay Area commute. However, this day was different. I was recovering from a cold brought home by my second grader, and I did not feel like talking. As a result, when I caught sight of a young man, clearly half my age, trying to make eye contact, I did my best to avoid his gaze and any form of conversation.
I am pleased to report that I failed at this undertaking and ultimately engaged in a 30-minute conversation that began with a tap to my shoulder and the statement that he liked my hair. The young man then announced that his hair used to be like mine, but he cut it in order to get a job and thwart harassment from the police. He asked if I had those kinds of problems because of my hair. I answered honestly with a no and the acknowledgment that because I am a lot older and a woman, things are different for me. When he asked if I thought he was wrong for cutting his hair, I again answered no and said he was justified in doing whatever helped him to feel safe and to succeed legally in the workforce; he could always grow his hair out later in life. This felt like the “mom” answer; in fact, it is the type of statement I would make to my own son.
So we boarded the bus and talked. Actually, he talked. I listened, asked sporadic questions, and gave bits and pieces of advice and encouraging words in between. I discovered he was 20 years old; I could guess this from his appearance. He grew up in Richmond, CA; has one sister; no children; and likes to read physics books. He has a good relationship with his father and is hopeful. He has been working at a restaurant at night for the past six months and taking classes during the day to complete his GED. He noted his lack of a GED as the primary reason for not getting a better job as a welder, a skill he acquired during a short stint in jail for doing “something stupid.” He told me that over a year ago, he rode to Oakland with a couple of friends, and they were actually the ones who did the “something stupid.” But he was in the car, and as a result, had to spend six months in jail. Although he described the time in jail as not long but too long, he did not disparage it or imply it was not justified. Instead, he focused on having learned to weld—acquiring a viable skill that could lead to better employment.
As the young man exited the bus, I was filled with trepidation. I wished him luck, encouraged him to complete his GED, and cautioned him to be careful; but I was afraid for him. It is not that I lack optimism or fail to see the potential in young people. If this were so, I would not remain in this field. What troubled me is the data trend for men with his demographic profile.
In March 2012, I participated in the Cities United Youth Summit led by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at the National League of City’s Congressional City Conference in Washington, DC. I presented data on the rates of homicide for Black males. As most people are aware, homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males ages 15 to 24 years. My presentation specifically focused on cities with populations of 100,000 or more, identified by the FBI as having the highest per capita murder rate.
Most people are not shocked to hear that cities like Chicago; Detroit; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington, DC; Saint Louis; and New Orleans are among those with the greatest numbers of Black males murdered. These are large cities with significant, if not majority, Black populations. However, many will be surprised to see Richmond, CA, on this list. Richmond is small in comparison, but based on its population, has one of the highest homicide rates for Black males—a rate higher than all of the cities mentioned above. In 2009, which is the most recent data available, the homicide rate for Richmond’s Black males was 191 per 100,000. With 159.6 per 100,000, St. Louis had the second highest rate; it is followed by New Orleans (131.5 per 100,000), Baltimore (107.5 per 100,000), Oakland (109.0 per 100,000), and Detroit (101.5 per 100,000).
The young man who shared his story during the 30-minutes bus ride was Black and lives in a city with one of the highest murder rates for men of his race and age. Despite his progress, a grim and very real chance exists that he or someone like him will be the next victim of a violent act that leads to a premature death. This is a sobering fact that will hopefully encourage everyone—including myself—to address and support efforts to end violence within our communities. To paraphrase Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia, if we can find the culprit in an E. coli outbreak, which often drills down to individual bunches of strawberries and bags of spinach, surely we can put our collective resources together to end violence in our communities.
 FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program Data. Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data, Supplementary Homicide Reports (2009).
Census 2010 and US Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2009, Detailed Tables.