If you're reading this in your local urban newspaper, you probably encountered at least one story about youth violence in your community before finding your way to this column. But wading through reports of violence in the news pales beside the daily real life experiences of many young people across this nation. According to a recently released Justice Department report, "More than 60 percent of the nation's youth have been exposed to violence within the last year. Nearly 1 in 2 was physically assaulted at least once, with more than 1 in 10 injured in an assault."
While incidents like the 1999 Columbine massacre which caused the deaths of 13 people or the 2007 Virginia Tech rampage which took the lives of 32 make international headlines, we are in the grips of a largely silent epidemic of youth violence that is endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of children across this country every year.
A few weeks ago, the nation was riveted by a YouTube video of the senseless beating death of Derrion Albert, a Chicago high school honor student. Derrion was attacked on his way home from school as he innocently walked through a crowd of rival gang members. According to the New York Times, "Close to 70 students have been murdered [in Chicago] since the beginning of the 2007 school year."
This level of violence is exceptional by any standard, but sadly, it is replicated at equally unacceptable levels in many of our major cities. As Attorney General Holder said during his recent visit to Chicago to address this issue, "Youth violence is not a Chicago problem any more than it is a black problem, a white problem or a Hispanic problem. It is an American problem."
A problem this big calls all of us to action. In recent years, we declared "war" on drugs and "war" on terrorism. Today, I think it's time we declare "peace" on youth violence. I was pleased that Holder and Education Secretary, Arne Duncan went to Chicago to begin what they called "a sustained national conversation" about youth violence in response to the Derrion Albert murder. Holder also announced a request for $24 million in next year's budget for community-based prevention programs such as Ceasefire and Project Safe Neighborhoods. But stopping and preventing youth violence will take more than money. And it is about more than violence.
While young people who commit violent acts must ultimately be held accountable for their crimes, we cannot ignore the role that poverty, parenting, poor schools, guns, drugs, gangs and the lack of opportunity play in this on-going tragedy. We must invest both more money and more of ourselves in solving these problems if we want to dig out the roots of youth violence. As someone said to me recently, if we can find the votes and the money for a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, we ought to be able to summon the will and the resources to save our kids.
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.