How poverty generates violence in the Black community


Remember: 25 percent of Black people are poor, and more than 50 percent of Black children are poor by U.S. government standards.

Week before last, we spoke of poverty of income: the 37 million poor Americans by the U.S. government’s statistics ($19,971 for a family of four), the 90 million Americans who are near-poor, and the high levels of poverty among African Americans with discrimination in hiring as being one of the reasons.

Last week, we spoke of a poverty of the spirit where some Black men are beaten down spiritually from discrimination and oppression. In this installment, we will use the theories of two preeminent experts on violence to make the connection between poverty and violence.

Amos Wilson

A scholar and activist, the late Dr. Amos Wilson was taken home to be with his ancestors a few years ago, but he left a psychological masterpiece. In Black on Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in the Service of White Domination (African World InfoSystems,1990), Wilson analyzes what happens when not just one person, but a large segment of a people experience poverty of income.

Remember: 25 percent of Black people are poor, and more than 50 percent of Black children are poor by U.S. government standards. An entire group of people — African Americans — experience poverty of the spirit from centuries and generations of exploitation, oppression and humiliation. The knife of oppression cuts deep for centuries.

Wilson has written very positive things about Black people — see Awakening the Natural Genius of Black Children (African World InfoSystems, 1992). He is no racist. But he wrote painfully and honestly about the negative effects of U.S. capitalism and its institutions on Black people, especially on the Black male criminal:

“The Black-on-Black violent criminal, in many instances, being neither Black nor White, is but an empty shell of a man whose bottomless vacuity, numbness and lack of definition are the sources of his insatiable need to fashion an identity out of current fads, eccentric dress and behavior. His voracious and rapacious greed, his need to consume conspicuously, a gluttonous devourer of things and people, reflects his ethnic hollowness. His need to intensify the painful feeling of others is emblematic of his need to feel something within himself, to have someone know the pain he has so deeply buried (page 87).

The Black-on-Black criminal has experienced a loss so deep, so painful, that he feels he has to strike out at others so they will feel the pain he feels. Here, Wilson is talking about an impoverished spirit, a buried soul.

Wilson combines the poverty of the pocketbook and the poverty of the heart to render a scathing indictment of American capitalism and its racist institutions. White institutions, he says, help create the Black-on-Black criminal by putting him in an inferior status and keeping him perpetually angry.

He then takes this anger out on people in his own community. At the same time, White corporations tell him that he can achieve a semblance of power, a modicum of status in his own community, by purchasing ostentatious, gaudy and expensive goods:

“What many African Americans, including Black-on-Black criminals, desire most are those things manufactured, owned, controlled and sold by their White oppressors. The White American ruling class devalues what it does not own or control, thereby provoking possessive/obsessive desires in the deprived groups it dominates… Through its manipulation of production and prices it seeks to manipulate the social conditions and organization (as well as disorganization) of the behavior, perception and consciousness of those who seek to acquire what it produces.”(pages 127-128)

First, White institutions tell African Americans that they are inferior, they’re idiots, they’re ugly, they’re not worthy. Then they tell them that, though inferior, they may be all right if they get a big SUV with spinning rims, wear sports gear, and put some gold around their necks.

Wilson says the Black-on-Black criminal will only heal when Blacks take control of their communities, teach positive values, and reclaim those positive values that once held them together — when we loved and looked out for each other, when we valued each other not for what we owned but who we were.

James Gilligan

Both a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, Dr. James Gilligan is the author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (Vintage Books, 1997). In this book, Gilligan agrees with Wilson that a great amount of injustice has been done to Black people by American institutions and characterizes this injustice as “structural violence.” Wilson and Gilligan both focus on the psychology of violence, but Gilligan provides more detail about the causes and its effect on the individual.

To Gilligan, violence is caused by shame and humiliation. He defines shame as the absence of self-love. He says there are only two types of love: self-love and love of others. Denied the love of others, a person’s self-love, or soul, like money in a savings account, slowly but surely begins to wane.
When we commit violence, says Gilligan, we’re actually trying to do something that to him is positive — that is, reclaim a part of the self, a part of a depleting sense of self-love, which we feel has somehow been violated. This is why, when you ask most young people today why they became violent, they’ll say it was because they were disrespected, or “dissed.”

Gilligan tells the story of a man he worked with who was considered the most violent man in prison. He asked this man, “What is it that you want more than anything else?”

He said this prisoner, who had little formal education and who had difficulty speaking, suddenly became very communicative, almost eloquent. “I want respect,” he said. “I want pride. I want dignity. And I’ll kill every m-f in this prison to get it!”

What it is

Together, both Gilligan and Wilson are telling us is that, to heal, we must do more than gain a marketable skill to get a living-wage job. We must address those ills which have come out of White institutions but, like cancer, infect many of us.

We must look inside our families and address our parenting habits. We must look deep inside institutions — media, schools, churches, prisons, the music industry — and eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, in fact, any words or actions that tend to induce feelings of inferiority, shame or humiliation.

In other words, we can no longer attempt to merely fill a brother’s pocketbook. We must fill and monitor his heart as well.

Next week: recognizing the presence of strong Black men.
Mac Walton welcomes reader responses to