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Isn’t Jew violence” a terrible plague? Dave Son of Sam” Berkowitz whose serial slaughter terrorized New York City, or Joel and Hannah Steinberg’s brutal child murder? Or the Moslem violence” that killed 3,000 on 911? The Latino Violence” and African Violence” that cause two-thirds of California’s homicides, robberies, and assaults? Shouldn’t we stand up to the Christian violence” that occurs every time a Protestant or Catholic commits a brutality? Queer violence”?

What… you find this discussion offensive? Bigoted? By what principle? If someone with an ethnic surname, leading a certain lifestyle, or belonging to a certain religion commits a violent crime, why not label the crime by the ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion of the perpetrator?

Because, you say, violence and crime are committed by individuals, not by demographies? Because most members of a demographic group DON’T commit murders, rapes, beatings, and other serious violence and shouldn’t be stigmatized en masse by the bad behaviors of a tiny fraction of their number? Because attaching a negative behavior to an entire population is racist, homophobic, and prejudicial, leading to hatred, oppression, and wrongheaded policies?

Wonderful, enlightened, egalitarian principles… So, let me ask a simple question: Why do we continue to use and tolerate the bigoted term, youth violence”?

A recent column (“No Silver Bullet for Youth Violence Plague,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5/22/2010) illustrates yet again how commentators’, media reporters’, and law enforcement’s incessant invocation of youth violence” leads to simplistic prejudices, mass generalizations from anecdotes, scapegoating, and severely limited analysis. Nearly all of the author’s examples referred to violence by black males. Why, then, didn’t the author brand the plague” as male violence” or black violence”? The reason is simple: such characterizations would represent slurs against entire classes of people – ones with the power to fight back against sexism and racism. 

In contrast, branding the plague” as youth violence” attacks a demographic that can’t fight back. It perpetuates the American tradition of assigning blame for social problems to whatever populations have the least power, enabling easy, popular stereotypes to go on and on. The slogan enabling authorities and media commentators to talk comfortably about crime and violence without risking offending anyone important. Note how glibly San Francisco’s proposed sit-lie” ban, which really targets the homeless, is being hyped as necessary to control violent youth.”

Why do we continually single out youth as synonymous with violence? Do youths commit a lot of it? Not compared to grownups. The FBI’s latest crime clearance shows persons under 18 commit a whopping 12% of all violent offenses, including 5% of homicides, in the country. California tabulations are similar. Are youths particularly violence prone? No. California’s teenaged youths have lower rates of violence than adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Is violence by persons under 18 rising? Just the opposite. It has plummeted in recent decades to record lows. Is a victim murdered by an adult perpetrator, then, somehow less dead” than the victim of a youth?

Though, objectively, youth are no more deserving of stigma for violence than 40-agers, the term youth violence” permits emotionally satisfying finger-pointing and venting of prejudices aided by a license to indulge utter falsehood. In the Chronicle column’s case, youth” extended all the way up to age 30 and included the usual wrong claims that youth violence” victimizes younger and younger” victims (in fact, both offenders and victims are becoming older and older) and that youth” are plaguing peaceful communities and troubling innocent grownups. Really? The Oakland Police reported 3,800 cases of domestic violence in 2008, nearly all perpetrated by adults and many victimizing children and youths, a plague” that doesn’t seem to generate nearly as much outrage.

In the real world, adults victimize far more youth than the other way around. The FBI reports that in 2008, nearly three times more youths were murdered by adults (627) than adults by youth (237). In fact, adults – not other youths – kill five out of six murdered youths. Even when youths are perpetrators of violence, crime analyses find that in most cases, they have adult co-offenders – which is why rates of youth violence” uncannily parallel adult violence rates by family, race, and community. We might as well talk about grownup violence” as the plague.”

So, here’s a revolutionary thought: Let’s stop hurling demeaning, prejudicial terms at all demographics! Let’s move crime discussion out of the 19th century and into the 21st!

It’s time to abolish the bigoted term youth violence” that stigmatizes young people and hampers reasoned analysis. There’s no distinct phenomenon identifiable as youth violence” – any more than Jew violence” or middle-aged violence.” Let’s make crime discussion complicated and uncomfortable – the way modern grownups should talk about it.