On Tuesday, I was preparing to work on this piece to support the President’s Executive Order on gun control when I received the call about my cousin.
What I was writing quickly became more real, as I learned that one of my family members became one of over 30,000 Americans who die every year as a result of gun violence. My cousin became one of the tragic statistics that I, unfortunately, cite most often in my work at My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Alliance. I know all too well that folks who look like me are twice as likely to die from gun violence, so I guess I really should not be all that surprised that a member of my fairly large family has joined the ranks of those whom gun violence took from the world too soon.
My cousin and I did not grow up near one another and I did not know him well, but his mother is my mother’s sister and we’re inextricably linked by blood. I would describe losing him as a “loss at a distance;” but a deep despair when considering the unfathomable pain my aunt and his siblings must feel. I remember that as a small child, he had the most adorable and infectious laugh. My memory of his laugh cannot be quantified as a statistic.
Yet Khayree’s death has served as a sharp reminder of the very real human side of the statistics I use to make the case for the work we are doing at MBK Alliance. These statistics represent lives cut short, and when you’re Black, these statistics weigh even more heavily as you assume that at some point in your life, you will be intimately connected to them in some way. I’ve been fortunate in my life; I was the recipient of a top-notch education and have experienced professional success, but a Harvard degree, a fancy job, and a comfortable paycheck offer no protection from the truth of what it means to be Black in America.
Because I didn’t know my cousin very well, I’m not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of his daily life. What I do know is that, according to local police reports, he was shot and killed during an altercation, likely over a small amount of marijuana. As a result, there will be multiple missing seats at dinner tables in 2016 – my cousin, and several other young men who will probably spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Tragically, this is exactly what so many in our country have come to expect both from and for our young men of color, and it’s what we are working to combat at MBK Alliance. My cousin’s story is the story that my statistics tell me to predict. We expect to see men like my cousin either die young or become one of over one million African-Americans in our prison system; alternatively, the expectation that these young men grow up to become CEOs, doctors, or lawyers is discussed with alarming infrequency. In many cases, rather than rising to the top, our Black men are literally disappearing.
I don’t have many answers, but I know we can do better and I know this President is trying to help us do just that. Like the President, I too believe in the Second Amendment. I grew up around guns and many of my friends and family members are legal gun owners. However, the rights of one should not infringe on the rights of others. As the President said in his speech, “Our inalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high-schoolers in Columbine, and from first graders in Newtown….First graders….And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” It happened to Khayree on Monday.
The President’s efforts to bolster background checks and provide additional funding for mental health treatment are a critical step in the right direction. His efforts to implement criminal justice reform are another. At MBK Alliance, we will do all that we can to support his efforts by focusing on violence prevention and anti-recidivism, and hopefully providing our young men with real opportunities and second chances. These young men need us; they are our cousins, brothers, and sons. They are our classmates and neighbors. They are the stories behind the statistics.
Marisa Renee Lee is the Managing Director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the gaps in opportunity and achievement for boys and young men of color – making the American Dream available to all. The Alliance focuses on six milestones along the life path that are critical indicators of success, one of which is reducing violence and providing second chances. Lee resides in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Matthew and their dog Sadie.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty