Opinion | The solution to youth crime? It has always been strong families.

My columns about youths involved in the D.C. criminal justice system invariably receive blowback from certain readers eager to get their licks in on what they perceive as our city’s failings. Last week’s column on D.C.’s emergency crime legislation was no exception.

Wrote commenter “DCCityGuy”: “Kids (especially young males) aren’t raised properly. This leads to a life of poverty and crime. They are raised by high school dropout teen moms, have 30-year-old grandmas, fatherless homes, illiterate role models, celebrating a culture of rappers and drug dealers who they watch their moms and grandmas twerking for, instead of being a responsible adult. Don’t snitch silence code but glorify violent lyrics in music that define women as meat that should be used and thrown away. This is the ghetto culture. Government can’t change a broken culture. … Hold criminals accountable to the fullest extent of the law, as they do in Virginia, and stop babies from having babies they don’t know the first thing about raising properly.”

Welcome to my world.

It’s one in which a coterie of readers, year in and year out, indulge themselves with sanctimonious put-downs of whole swaths of this capital city. They are readers who love stereotyping single heads of households as irresponsible, butt-shaking illiterates. Readers who gratuitously link teenage boys in fatherless homes with drug-dealing and violence. Readers who believe that not always being correct in conduct leads to a life of poverty and crime. Even as, like Pontius Pilate, they wash their hands — and consciences — of the whole mess.

Of course, there’s a rejoinder, but it has no currency with people like DCCityGuy. Such observers don’t know, or don’t care to learn, that violence and social failures can be traced to root causes of impoverished living conditions, failing schools, lack of job skills and haphazard work opportunities. They ignore the fact that racial disparities, like the air we breathe, surround us, choking off the path to upward mobility.

The blame-casters also blow right past the ways in which the city is trying to respond to youths involved in the D.C. justice system. And they don’t appreciate the challenge of coming up with effective, time-tested prevention and intervention services for children and young adults.

That’s not their problem. But creating a safer and socially stronger D.C. is what we owe to each other.

So, I think about:

And I ask: What are living conditions in their homes like? How did the conditions come to be that way? How can they be repaired?

Let’s acknowledge research findings that conclude young people are developmentally different from adults — that kids, especially those vulnerable to peer pressure, are more prone to taking risks. And that most youths don’t give much thought to the long-term consequences of their actions.

I know those things as a parent, grandparent, brother, uncle and cousin, and from personal experiences. I learned those things growing up in a West End/Foggy Bottom D.C. neighborhood under less-than-desirable economic circumstances. (We would have been charitably categorized as “low-income.”) And I learned then, as I know now, that family makes a difference.

Regardless of the amount of income or the kind of food set on the table, family — mothers, fathers, extended family members — were the most crucial people to our well-being. Home was where we were accepted and found affection. Home was where we grew up believing we belonged to each other.

Family gave us our first teachers, too. Oh, they didn’t talk and act like the White teachers we saw in the movies and TV shows. They didn’t drive fancy cars or wear fine clothes. But they knew how little racially segregated D.C. thought of Black people, and they worked overtime teaching us to be positive about ourselves and oriented toward a future beyond Foggy Bottom.

Families such as the one that nurtured me exist everywhere in this city today — but not for every child. Certainly not for many of our 15-, 13- and 11-year-old kids who are in trouble with the law. We must not wash our hands of those children. They are ours.

We must do what DCCityGuy does not do. Take a closer look at their lives and those of their parents — without judging, blaming or labeling. We must come to grips with the underlying causes of their behavior and deal with them. That is what we as a city must do — through official agencies, community organizations and faith-based groups — by investing resources into dealing with social disorders, including family breakdown, that produce justice-involved children and young adults.

Which might well also take us into the home. If that’s the case, so be it.

Home is the place where acceptance, affection and belonging can lead today’s youths to positive results. Dare we not go there?


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