Edward Pratt: Two decades ago, warnings were there

If Baton Rouge’s black community thinks violence is crippling its young adults, just wait until the next generation grows up. Thousands of elementary schoolchildren who see violence as normal as lacing up their Air Jordan shoes are gathering like angry storm clouds here.

These are children who revere their neighborhood drug dealer but don’t know the minister at the church down the street. Some inner-city boys, who can’t recite their multiplication tables, can describe, with stunning accuracy, the deadly power of weapons like Tec 9s and 9 mm pistols.

Several local organizations and churches are gamely trying to change things, but they are overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the problem. How did this happen?

Can anything be done to save the next generation?

“There are so many problems that we can’t do just one thing and solve it,” said Bonnie Jackson, a lawyer with the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defender’s Office. “There are so many holes in the dike, where do you start plugging it?”

I wrote those words 22 years ago, the opening lines of a series of articles I wrote for this newspaper that focused on an alarming rise in violence among African-American youth in the parish. Jackson is now a criminal court judge here, but her words still ring true.

I dug up my 1992 series, “Can We Save Our Black Children?” after hearing about the horrific killing of three teenagers in Baker last weekend. It was the same spike in deadly violence that pushed me do that series.

Let’s look back to move forward.

Some of the young people I interviewed in 1992 saw trouble all around them and others, with little or no parental supervision, were hell-bent to be menaces to society.

A teenager I interviewed several times said on one occasion that if he had a 12-gauge shotgun, he would “blow somebody’s brains out” if they messed with him. (Really, who thinks like that?) A few years later, he was arrested and convicted for killing someone.

I recalled the day I spent in Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Richey’s courtroom and listened as a mother complained her young son cursed and beat her. She pleaded with Richey for help. Another mother begged Richey to essentially save her from her two young sons, one of whom had chased her with a knife.

Richey would say later to me, “There are times when I want to say I am not the momma. You will have to control this child.”

The late Edselle Cunningham, then a Family Court hearing officer, said the growing number of black children born to single-parent households had virtually eliminated the extended family that used to care for children.

“For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why people brought small children to court. It used to be that black children could be left at their aunt’s or uncle’s houses,” he said. “With so many children being born to single mothers, there is no other side of the family” to help raise children.

There are statistics now that say at least 72 percent of black children are born to single parents. This is not an indictment of single parents. Many of them sacrifice everything to raise good children, and many of them succeed. But, there is overwhelming statistical data that shows the future is not bright for most children in those households.

For the most part, an overwhelming majority of young African Americans are doing the right thing. Those young people will never make the police blotter.

But the wanton killings last week, and several more among our African-American youth, make me wonder if a lot has changed since I wrote that series a generation ago.

Any solutions to this will take more than five years. This will be grind of hits and misses. But we have to do something. What’s clear is that there are not enough jails and gated communities to save us.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. He can be reached at epratt1972@yahoo.com.