Gun Violence and the Minority Experience

Yolanda T. Mitchell, Ph.D.; and Tiffany L. Bromfield, M.A.
/ Family Focus: Understanding Gun Violence from a Family Perspective

See all articles from this issue

Yolanda T. Mitchell and Tiffany L. Bromfield

In Brief
■ The White experience of gun violence is often vastly different from that of racial/ethnic minorities in urban settings.
■ News and social media, politics, and implicit biases greatly affect our understanding of gun violence.
■ Family Scientists should acknowledge gun violence in racial/ethnic minority communities as a particular societal problem.

Increasingly, gun violence in the United States has been at the forefront of news coverage, political discourse, and everyday conversation about civil rights in the United States. National media coverage of gun violence such as the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the mass shooting at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas is immediate and in-depth. However, this same vigorous coverage does not exist when gun violence is committed in low-income, mostly racial/ethnic minority communities. While the gun violence in such communities does not often occur en masse, it does occur often. Despite its frequency, though, it is not covered in the media as a social problem that needs attention; in fact, it is presented as just a way of life for Black and Brown people. It is important for family professionals (whether teachers, counselors, policymakers, or caseworkers) to be a part of the solution to reduce, and help victims cope with, gun violence in racial/ethnic minority communities.

Consequences of Gun Violence

Twenty percent of all firearm homicides occur in the 25 largest U.S. cities (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 2011). Of the 12,979 firearm homicides in the United States in 2015, 81% occurred in urban areas (CDC, 2017). The disparity is even greater in certain geographies of large cities, specifically those that are more racially and ethnically diverse. For example, in 2014, in Philadelphia’s safest police district, which is approximately 85% White, no one was reported killed by gun violence. In the most violent district, with a roughly 90% Black population, there were 189 shooting victims and 40 deaths (Philadelphia Police Department, 2017). The homicide rate for Black Americans in all 50 states is, on average, eight times higher than that of Whites (CDC, 2017). In general, U.S. residents are 128 times more likely to be killed by everyday gun violence than by international terrorism; Black people specifically are 500 times more likely to die this way (Xu, Murphy, Kochanek, & Bastian, 2016). Importantly, most urban areas, especially those that experience the most gun violence, are characterized by poverty, inequality, and racial segregation (Sampson, 2013).

Most recently, attention has been focused on mass shootings in schools. As of August 2018, there were 56 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2018. But most people hear on the news about the Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Santa Fe incidents—shootings in suburban areas with majority White populations, even though Black and Brown communities—including the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, the Wear Orange Campaign, Mothers in Charge, Mothers Against Senseless Killings, Black Lives Matter, and the Community Justice Reform Coalition—have been voicing concerns over gun violence for years. Gunfire on school grounds disproportionately affects students of color, occurring most often at schools with high enrollments of minority students. Although racial/ethnic minority students may not succumb to gun violence in mass shootings at the same rate as White children do, they still fall victim to and are exposed to gun violence at higher rates. Almost 3,000 children are shot and killed every year in the United States, with guns taking the lives of 10 times more Black children than White children (Fowler, Dahlberg, Haileyesus, Gutierrez, & Bacon, 2017).

The death toll is not the only problem. Being a witness to a shooting, whether at school, in the community, or at home, has a major influence on children, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty in school, engagement in criminal activity, and abuse of drugs and alcohol (Cooley-Quille, Boyd, Frantz, & Walsh, 2001; Santilli et al., 2017). Communities with higher rates of gun violence show slower growth in new retail and service businesses, as well as slower home value appreciation (Irvin-Erickson, Lynch, Gurvis, Mohr, & Bai, 2017), which encourages urban flight. Families of victims and survivors of gun violence often experience financial crisis, including an inability to pay rent, utility bills, and phone service because of lost earnings and high medical bills (Bieler, 2014).

Gun Violence as a Social Problem

Applying critical race theory to our understanding of how we define social problems can help us further examine how gun violence can be viewed and experienced in various ways. According to Blumer (1971), a social problem exists primarily in terms of how society defines and conceives of it. A social problem does not exist unless it is “recognized by a society . . . otherwise they do not perceive it, address it, discuss it, or do anything about it. The problem is just not there” (Blumer, 1971, p. 302). Critical race theory examines race and racism across dominant modes of cultural expression. Through this lens, researchers try to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race.

It is very apparent that gun violence for Whites in the United States is a social problem, and yet for communities of color, it is seen as a separate, individualized matter. The media and social movements play a role in how news of gun violence is experienced across the nation. Parham-Payne (2014) found that the violence in inner-city neighborhoods might be widely known but is mentioned only briefly in newscasts, and even then rarely results in a call to action. Media outlets perpetuate stereotypes of communities of color by rarely showing minorities in the role of victim. Often, the news fails to include coverage of Black Americans and overidentifies other groups of color as criminals (Chiricos & Eschholz, 2002; Dixon & Williams, 2014; Entman, 1990; Gerbner, 2003; Surrette, 1992; Welch, 2007). This portrayal in the media continues to negatively affect communities of color by insinuating that the violence occurs only in low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities and perpetuates the myth that gun violence is mainly the result of stereotypes like Black-on-Black crime. But statements like these are false and discriminatory. Statistically, Whites typically commit crimes against Whites, Asians against Asians, Native Americans against Native Americans, and so on, because most often people commit crimes where they live (Morgan, 2015). Because people continue to live in segregated neighborhoods in the United States (Boustan, 2013; Iceland, Weinberg, & Steinmetz, 2002), they tend to commit crimes against other people of the same race. The narrative of Black-on-Black crime is rooted in systemic oppression, racism, and implicit bias, and it leaves Black people and other minorities to fix “their” problems on their own.

Movements born from gun violence help to expand the picture. Students from Parkland have organized rallies, and the news media covers the “march” and fortitude of the young survivors who have taken to the streets of our nation’s capital. When communities like Ferguson, Missouri, organize, though, they are labeled “protesters” and “rioters”; they are met with the National Guard, army tanks, and tear gas. The difference in experience is not just discriminatory and astounding—it is traumatic. Research tells us that racial/ ethnic minorities are experiencing the trauma of gun violence to such an extent that their ability to cope is compromised (see Bryant-Davis, Adams, Alejandre, & Gray, 2017; Santilli et al., 2017; Slutkin, 2013; Voisin, Bird, Hardestry, & Shiu, 2011). These stressful and traumatic events contribute to mental states and overall quality of life that is disrupted by emotional changes, and those are passed on through generations.

Implications for Family Professionals

It is imperative that family professionals recognize the particular ways that exposure to gun violence can affect ethnic minorities. Family professionals should discuss racist and discriminatory experiences with victims, community members, and policy officials to help minorities cope with and to reduce incidences of gun violence. Family support, community intervention, and policy and social change efforts focused on providing support are integral to coping (Bailey, Hannays-King, Clarke, Lester, & Velasco, 2013; Bailey, Sharma, & Jubin, 2013; Bryant-Davis et al., 2017; Santilli et al., 2017). Researchers examining coping behaviors have shown that positive, problem-focused strategies are related to better outcomes (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017). Resistance, a step beyond coping (e.g., protesting, organizing, advocating for policy reform), is a means of actively working to interrupt traumatic experiences and their consequences (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017) and can be instrumental in recovering from experiences of gun violence. A key issue is also the recognition of how society distinguishes gun violence in White, suburban neighborhoods from gun violence in minority, urban communities. To create better physical and emotional outcomes for all, we must acknowledge that gun violence in minority neighborhoods is not a Black or Brown problem—it’s a national one.


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