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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Existential Fall Out after Newtown

The Existential Fall Out after Newtown

I have a heavy heart tonight.  My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Newtown.  The Newtown shooting is a terrible tragedy. It has reminded me of lessons learned while studying the families of murder victims. 

For the past 2 years, I have been researching the everyday lives of families who lose someone in a murder.  This has been difficult—and often heartbreaking—research.  I have spent many nights thinking about how much I take my family, friends, and other people in my life for granted.   I think about the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings whose first and last thoughts of each day are of the person they loved and lost. The things that I have seen and the stories that I have collected have left a deep and permanent mark on my soul.

Amongst the many thoughts swirling around in my head, I keep returning to a troubling “double standard” that we often taken for granted when shootings happen.

On one hand, the Newtown shooting reminds us that fatal violence can happen at anytime to anyone.  It is a painful reminder that life is precious and that it can be snapped away from us at any moment.  The Newtown shooting makes many of us feel an existential fall out. How could this happen?  Why did this have to happen?  And what does this mean for me?

For many of us, these shootings cut a little too close to home.  They happen in places to people who remind us of ourselves.  We begin to wonder: “Are we ever really safe?” “Will our children come home from school today?” “Will this happen at my favorite movie theater?”   

In turn, these ideas shape how we feel about families who mourn in the wake of such tragedies.  We feel deep empathy, compassion, and sadness for families and victims in Newtown.  We talk about the victims here as innocent children who met a horrible death completely out of their hands.  We wonder how the families and friends of victims will cope with such a loss.

But, the same kinds of sympathy and compassion are often not extended to families who lose their children in street shootings every day.  These situations are treated very differently by the media, by our leaders, and by many of us.  We see these shootings as events that only happen to people who are caught up in the wrong crowd.  We assume that these victims—who are often children—must have been dealing drugs, in a gang, or doing something to meet such a horrible end.  Everyday violence in our inner-cities helps us hold onto a precious myth: Fatal violence only happens to people who bring it on themselves.  If we can believe this, or at least think it might be true, we can feel safe again. 
How do we reconcile these conflicting responses to tragedy?   
I’m here to tell you that many of our popular assumptions about the second group of victims are deeply problematic and misinformed.  Many of the people that I have followed over the years have been young men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This is a powerful message that John Rich—a physician, scholar, and interventionist—teaches us in his powerful work on young black men’s experiences with trauma. 
This is a theme that also resonates with my work:  One family I followed lost their youngest son in a street-style execution shooting.  The mother and two older brothers of the victim faced an unsympathetic and sometimes cruel world.  Newspaper articles talked about this case as an example of how families need to keep closer tabs on their children.  Local community leaders and church pastors used this event to denounce drugs in the community.  And, most hurtful of all, supervisors at the mother’s work filed complaints about her work productivity slipping after her son’s death.  When she told them that she was in the bathroom wailing over the loss of her youngest child—she was fired and released with severance. 

This is only a small sample of the many tragedies that I followed in Philadelphia.  I hope that this underscores the need to rethink how we process and make sense of gun violence across the board.  The deep sympathy and pain that we all feel tonight for the victims of Newtown should be extended to families who lose sons, daughters, husbands, wives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, best friends, and siblings in our backyards everyday. 


  1. Great post, and something I've been thinking about today. I read today that almost 90 people in the US die from gun violence each day. This means the the children and teachers of today's horror are likely less than 1/3 of today's victims. Will we every learn the names of the others?

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kjerstin. I am always struck and saddened by how we as a society value some deaths as more "important" than others.

  2. I know many of us occasionally succumb to this terrible mentality, if only to comfort ourselves that bad things will not happen to us ("I stay away from there," "no daughter of mine is going to be involved in XYZ," etc.). However, you can't victim-blame your way out of school shootings. Kids have to go to school, and you have to believe they are safe there. Not a lot of people say, "well, I would never let my children go to school" (although some do). I think that's one of the things that hits so hard about this event. I haven't been thinking of the children who die in the street due to gun violence every day, and deserve just as much of our compassion and advocacy. Thank you for the reminder.

    And the treatment of the grieving mother who was fired from her job? Disgusting.

    1. Hi E,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think your point is right on the mark, and gets to the core of how our collective feelings of safety are disrupted after something like this...

  3. I think the double standard may have to do with how people (want to) see themselves? So they may find themselves connecting to the Newtown residents. Perhaps as many people do not (want to) identify with inner-city families. It may have to do with the socioeconomic makeup of both, too, with Newtown residents being more 'mainstream' middle-class-types (and so the values attached are: good, hardworking, average americans) while inner-city families get to be plagued by the stigma of being underprivileged (through victim-blaming, and so perhaps this extends into blaming them for the murders too: "Fatal violence only happens to people who bring it on themselves").

    1. Hi N,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with your response. This is something I always bring up when I lecture to undergrads. This past semester, we spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of images that we all have of "ghetto neighborhoods." Most of my students here at U of Toronto admitted that their understanding of low-income areas are heavily shaped by stereotypical images that they see in mass media. Most had never been to a place that seemed "dangerous." So, I definitely think you're right on in your assessment of how people's class situation shapes their perception/empathy response. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. I agree with you that we have a big problem in terms of our stigmatizing of inner city African-Americans. We need to expand our working imagination so that when we think about who "we" are as Americans it is not suburban, upper middle class white people and then subgroups. Everything you say is right on. Maybe when people are paying attention to a form of gun violence is the best time to make them think about all of it and our views on one group over another.

    I do want to add one thing, though, that it is easy to ignore an individual tragedy, even a series of individual tragedies. Had one child been killed in Newton... To be fair I think that if one child had been killed in Newton in a school shooting, it might have made national news in a way that the shooting of one child in an inner city school might not have. On the other hand, if it did make national news one day, and it might not have at all. It would not have attracted much notice outside Connecticut. Here in Metro Detroit we do see stories on the local news of individual shootings in the city if they involve children. The typical daily gun crime not involving children does not make headlines.

    But not all of the difference in attention has to do with urban-vs.-suburban, well-off vs. poor or white vs. non-white. It has to do with it being a single, dramatic event and not a slow ongoing problem.

    I do believe that if someone went into an inner city school and all at once shot up a class room of first graders that people would be horrified and would pay attention. Would it be covered in exactly the same way? I don't know. I can't imagine, though, that it would not break people's hearts and get full time media coverage.

  5. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for your comment. I think you're right about the differences in how people and institutions respond to isolated shootings vs. massacre shootings. Massacre shootings are more newsworthy because they are quite rare. School shootings, however, are not as rare. When I was in Philly, there was a shooting at a school a couple blocks from my apt. The local news didn't even really cover this. It was, sadly, not that "newsworthy" in a city that leads the nation in homicide rates (for big cities over 1 million). So, when this stuff happens to a small, rural community, it gets lots of national attention and we all become outraged. Anyways, I really appreciate your comment. I think it calls to attention to a nice comparison.