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Sanchez: What homicide numbers don't tell

Guns seized by the New York City Police

Guns seized by the New York City Police Department (March 21, 2007) Photo Credit: Newsday/Robert Mecea

A recent report by the Violence Policy Center has reconfirmed what most of us already know: Black people are killing black people at astounding rates.

In 2009, African-Americans made up 13 percent of the population and 47 percent of homicide victims, according to the latest FBI data available analyzed in the report.

Such tallies come out every year, and they get the usual treatment by most news organizations. Cull the local stats, add a bit of police commentary and be done with it.

End of story. Click the remote and change the channel.

But that's not the end. It ought to be the beginning. What if the murders were viewed for their consequences beyond the act? For the unresolved grief, played out for years and compounded death after death.

These tragedies have become so familiar that they all seem to fall into a similar narrative. Gunshot victim. Police officers swarm a neighborhood. Crime scene tape goes up. Grieving friends and family gather nearby.

Grieving. What happens after the funeral, after some footage of a prayer vigil, after the interview with a sobbing mother, brother or grandmother? As fraught with pain as those televised moments are, the more devastating consequences continue to accumulate.

With that in mind, "Black Homicide Victimization in the United States: An Analysis of 2009 Homicide Data," is more difficult to casually set aside.

Black homicide rates are 17.90 per 100,000, according to the report. That's compared to the overall national rate of 4.76 per 100,000. For white people it was 2.92 per 100,000. Guns were the most common weapons.

As with murders involving other races and ethnicities, the victims and perpetrators are usually of the same race. Every time a white person is murdered, it is just as apt to be "white-on-white" crime as it is for a black murder victim to be a victim of "black-on-black." However, when you look the incidence rates, for African Americans it begins to look like self-genocide.

More recognition is needed for the idea that when this much violence impacts the same communities for years on end, the results flow like waves, rippling out far from the initial homicide. That is especially true in poor communities. Poverty has a way of magnifying the consequences of the many setbacks and tragedies of life. The poor find it harder than others to bounce back from a broken-down car, a lost job or a murdered loved one.

From that perspective, some of the more recent commentary on ways to solve violence, poverty and low-income blight glows with dismissive arrogance.

Just get a job cleaning the toilets at your school, was a solution offered by GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Because, after all, it is just a lack of work ethic that troubles poor communities, right?

Religious conservatives like to tout the idea that if only more people would marry, all would be right with poor black people and economic prosperity would emerge. But given that virtually all of the victims are male, there is a skewed ratio of available, marriage-ready men in some communities.

Deeper in the report are findings that challenge other common assumptions. The vast majority of the murders were not in conjunction with another felony being committed. A high percentage of the victims, 72 percent, knew their killer. And 54 percent involved an argument between the victim and the offender.

That's people not functioning. It's a breakdown of social skills, of the emotional ability to "put down the gun," to "stop the violence," to "cease fire" or any number of other slogans attached to well-intentioned programs.

No murder ever makes sense. But a high percentage of these are flat-out senseless. And those stories are familiar: men killing because of a fight over a girl, someone looking at another person the wrong way, or a minor feud "settled" with a gun.

This is not making excuses for violent behavior. No one forces another person to make the decision to kill someone.

But it should provoke more thought on what could disrupt people's ability to solve problems, to negotiate, to walk away? Could it be the impact of the unrelenting violence itself?

The report noted: "The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities." The disconnection is partly due to people not being able to relate to that much loss of life through violence.

Such reports shouldn't be viewed as annual tallies, but rather as a long-running, interconnected thesis on the consequences of violence. It's unrelenting and far too often unaddressed.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at Distributed by Tribune Media Services.