Youth violence surfaces in our public consciousness this week as we mark the 10th anniversary of Columbine. As we inevitably debate the conditions and causes for youth violence, we would do well to pay attention to a pervasive and life-threatening condition that affects a growing number of American young people and turns the debate about their violent behavior upside down.
In the last decade, scholars such as Elijah Anderson have identified a significant shift in the self-understandings and world views of inner-city youth. No longer merely isolated from the common good, these young people now aggressively reject the values, practices, and public goods associated with the mainstream which they feel has rejected them. As a result of persistent social isolation, their attempts to find meaning in existence, to dream of alternative futures, to participate in things larger than one’s self or to invest in relationships with others become an exercise in futility. To the extent that alienation assaults the capability for “fellow-feeling,” then it creates the emotional distance that enables assaults of other kinds.
Traditionally assumed to affect only the poorest minority kids in neighborhoods like North Philadelphia, the South Side of Chicago, or East Baltimore, depicted on HBO’s The Wire, a recent New York Times article suggests that somewhat more socially mobile immigrant youth in “first suburbs” or “inner-ring” suburbs—neighborhoods increasingly facing social isolation as social capital continues its outward migration to the ever-expanding “ex-urbs”—are the newest victims of what one theologian calls Destructive Capitalistic Personality Complex or DCPC.
A lack of authentic relationships surfaces as a common denominator that links these young people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, whether with adults, with civic institutions, with each other, or with themselves. A look at the Catholic Church’s underwhelming commitment to youth ministry (see the findings in the sixth chapter of Smith’s and Denton’s Soul Searching), suggests that their frustration at being abandoned may not be totally unwarranted. As adolescents, they cannot be expected to make these relationships on their own. They need the commitment of adults, of extended networks of support, of faith communities. Their experiences of social abandonment compel us to think about youth violence in a different light—not necessarily in terms of the violence that they commit against each other or their communities, but rather the violence that we are doing to them by refusing to invest our social capital in them.