A few weeks ago I read an essay, “Why I hate being a black man”. There isn’t much in it that I could relate to but there was one thing that forced me to reflect. The author gave examples of his presence as 6 ft tall black man arousing fear in people: “…I finally became cognizant of why people might fear being around me or in close proximity to me: I am a black male.” To that, I can relate. I’ve experienced exactly what Brent Staples talks about in his seminal essay, “Black Men and Public Spaces”.
I’m always aware of my surroundings, especially at night, as you need to be in most environments. Many times as I walk through central campus, I find myself smiling so as to put people at ease and even sometimes elect not to wear a hoodie even when weather calls for one. This was particularly true during the 2011-2012 school year when I wore dreadlocks and a thick beard. Needless to say I didn’t and still don’t look like the typical Yale student. The fear and rise in discomfort people feel in my presence at night is palpable and visceral, especially female students. I’m not physically imposing; I’m short and stocky.
Whenever people ask me to describe New Haven, I describe it as one of the weirdest places in America that I’ve been to. The close geographic juxtaposition of wealth, prestige with some of the worst social inequality and poverty and the concomitant high crime incidence, particularly gun crime is mind-boggling.
Last Monday, after returning from the library sometime after 10:00, the alarm sounds in my dorm. I thought it was a fire alarm. Then to my horror I heard a voice informing residents that a man with a gun had been sighted and was imploring us to seek shelter. I quickly locked my door while two friends from Hartford and Jamaica messaged me with updates from the local news and Twitter. We remained on lock down for about six hours.
All this made me think about Dec. 14, 2012. I was studying in Copenhagen when I learned of the tragedy of the Sandy Hook massacre.
The number of lives taken by guns is horrific. New Haven is not the only American city that contends with the scourge of gun violence. Others include Durham, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago. In addition to dealing with gun violence what do these cities have in common? A world-class university in its city limits. Durham has Duke University, St. Louis has Washington University, Baltimore is home to Johns Hopkins, Philadelphia has the University of Pennsylvania, Chicago is home to University of Chicago. I’ll even throw in Stanford and University of California Berkeley in the mix because of their close proximity to Oakland.
Many of these universities are home to some of the world’s brightest minds. This missive serves as my clarion call to the administrations and professors of these institutions, particularly my own, to act in a concerted manner to have an impact on this issue. I would love to see these schools join together in a consortium dedicated to addressing gun violence.
Much is said about corporate social responsibility. Many consumers have begun to hold companies to a higher standard concerning corporate citizenship. Now it’s time to hold the nation’s private universities, particularly the ones with massive endowments to a higher standard in addressing social ills in their respective spheres. I think it’s downright shameful that New Haven remains blighted with poverty, health disparities and educational inequities when Yale is so well situated both financially and intellectually to actually have a real impact. If reports such as the New York Times’ “In Places Like North St. Louis, Gunfire Still Rules the Night” are any indication, other universities are just as guilty of dereliction of their moral duty to their communities outside of the campus building or gates.
Private universities are exceptionally adept at lobbying against challenges to their tax-exempt status. Imagine if the presidents of some of the top universities were able to deploy their powerful lobbying wings to using the savings from the wind down of the “War on Drugs” to invest in youth development in America and the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, universities could champion a new “Third Way” with the Obama Administration to create a new paradigm in terms of public private partnerships. The Democratic Party’s push for “GUN CONTROL” was resoundingly defeated the last time around, it is now time to shift the debate semantically. There should now be a focus on GUN VIOLENCE REDUCTION AND PREVENTION. Partnerships with private universities provide opportunities to bring about a new approach that is informed by public health, sociological and statistical principles to reduce gun violence. Furthermore, private universities using private funds to research components of gun violence such as the causal and symbiotic relationship between gun violence and drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere and the USA would bypass congressional bans and other deleterious machinations.
While I was in Denmark, my friend and hall mate Maria was warning me about how dangerous my neighborhood, Nørrebro, was and that I should be careful. I wanted to tell her that cavorting about Copenhagen, being attacked at gun point was the least of my worries; and that compared to New Haven and other places I’ve lived or visited, Copenhagen was the Elysian Fields. I was on a break from such worries. Not anymore, I’m back in New Haven.