Columbine High, Not An Inner City School

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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The murderous rampage by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris left many parents, school officials, local politicians, and the police shaking their heads in puzzlement that it happened in Littleton and not some other place. After all Littleton is a mostly white middle-class suburb with two-story modern homes, neat lawns, and well-attended PTAs where it's a major scandal when a neighborhood kid is caught shoplifting, stealing a tire, or driving drunk. But behind their puzzlement is a huge presumption that their neighborhood is a cordon sanitaire against the murderous violence that is thought to occur exclusively in the ghettoes and barrios. This ignores the fact that the recent teen shooting sprees at high school campuses across America did not occur at a predominantly black or Latino inner-city school but at predominantly white high schools in Jonesboro, Paducah, Edinboro, and Springfield. It denies the harsh reality that there are plenty of negligent parents, indifferent teachers, lackadaisical school officials, and emotionally tortured students in the suburbs too.

The presumption that the violence at Columbine High School happens only in other places also rests on a heavy foundation of racial stereotypes and myths about African-Americans and Latinos. Suburban kids and their parents are fed a bloated diet of reports, news, and features on crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and family dysfunctionality in the ghettoes and barrios. Legions of politicians have built and sustained their careers by screaming for more tough laws, police, and prisons to crackdown on ghetto and barrio crime.

The presumption that inner-city neighborhoods equals bad kids, and bad homes comforts, soothes, and ultimately deludes many parents into turning a blind eye when their kids take drugs, swagger, posture, bully, intimidate others, toss out racist epithets, prance around in gangster-style trench coat attire, drape themselves in Nazi paraphernalia, play mayhem and mass murder internet and video fantasy games such as Doom and Quake allegedly a favorite of Harris's, and increasingly act out their personal frustrations, fears, alienation and rebellion with deadly gun play. The presumption that savage rampages aren't supposed to happen in places such as Littleton also allowed school officials, teachers, the police and probation officials to miss the glaring signs that Harris and Klebold were time bombs waiting to go off.

When a monstrous tragedy like the Columbine massacre happens it shouldn't matter what the income, status or color of the victims are. Their deaths should evoke the same reaction of grief and compassion. But the nagging suspicion is that if the dead and wounded had been African-American or Latino kids at an inner city school there would not have been the intense and prolonged national agony and outrage. A small army of psychologists and educators would not saturate the news endlessly analyzing troubled youth. There would not have been the instant clamor by Congress and a bevy of state legislators for tougher gun control. The NRA would not have called off nearly all of its convention activities scheduled for Denver. The vice-president and parade of a dignitaries would not have trooped to the memorial services for the victims.

One need only remember the murder of 7 year-old Sherrice Iverson at a Nevada casino, the auto dragging death of James Byrd Jr., in Texas by avowed white supremacists, the wave of black church burnings, and the gunning down on a Denver street in 1997 of an African immigrant by alleged skinheads. These outrages drew muted public fury, perfunctory expressions of regret from public officials, and instantly disappeared from the nation's headlines. There is also deep doubt that if the perpetrators of the murderous assault were black or Latino that they would have been characterized simply as two kids gone haywire and the bunch they hung out with benignly labeled a "clique." They almost certainly would have been lambasted as gangsters, thugs, terrorists, and predators.

When much of the media routinely brands inner-city parents as irresponsible and derelict, and their kids as violence-prone it's small wonder that those who live in places such as Littleton can delude themselves that a Harris and Klebold don't live in their neighborhood. But they do. And to ignore them or pretend they don't is to perpetuate the worst stereotypes.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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