Dead Kids

Startling sociological findings about violence and Boston's inner-city youth
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 15, 2010


Boston's violence promotes more violence, and its murders beget even more murder.

READ: "Words to live by," by David S. Bernstein.
That's the sad but unavoidable lesson to take from a powerful new book just published by sociologist David J. Harding, who studied Boston's inner-city black youth while at the Sociology and Social Policy Program at Harvard University.

In Living the Drama: Community, Conflict, and Culture Among Inner-City Boys (University of Chicago Press), Harding depicts the daily lives of teens — often using their own words — growing up in some of Boston's most troubled neighborhoods.

Harding concludes that, rather than looking at social conditions as roots of violence, we need to understand that, to a surprising extent, violence is causing the dangerous and deadly social conditions in parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. It might seem irrational or contradictory, from our outside perspectives, but to the boys living with constant fear, self-destructive behavior can provide a roadmap to survival.

This startlingly bare-knuckled conclusion is painfully relevant to the gun violence that is once again dominating so many media reports.

The latest tipping point came in late May, when two gangbangers allegedly grabbed 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis from his scooter, at around 8 pm on a Sunday, and shot him to death on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester.

Fomby-Davis was the third murder victim that age in the city this year. And those were just the most horrific examples. A 10-year-old girl was shot in the leg on Creston Street this past Friday. The 27 murders in Boston through the end of May are the highest since the bad old days of 1995.

This spate of violence follows a relative calm that saw the annual homicide tally drop from 75 in 2005 to 50 in 2009.

The city's official response has been similar to its reaction every other time such incidents hit the headlines. Police swarm "hot zones" looking for "impact players" to take off the streets, while well-meaning pols and activists call for funding of summer-jobs and youth-services programs to get at the "root of the problem."

These reactive efforts might help temporarily reduce the body count. But they will do nothing to change the underlying dynamic in Boston's troubled areas, where the fear of violence ironically pushes adolescent boys to copy the same behaviors, and end up on the same paths, as those before them.

That means youth that would ordinarily not be inclined toward violence will join or form groups for protection, defend others in the neighborhood so they will themselves be defended, emulate older teens and young men who have survived the streets, and, frequently, choose activities that bolster a tough image over those that lead to success in life. The complex message of the book is that, in certain neighborhoods, violence reshapes the culture and social dynamics so dramatically that it leads boys to embrace and perpetuate the very lifestyles that we think of as the root of the problem.

"We're forcing these kids to make decisions on how to survive in the short term," says Harding, "which might not be so good for them in the long term."

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