Back in 1977, I was Derrion Albert.
That year I was a high school junior at a Chicago public high school. At that school and at that time, fortunately, excellence still was lauded and rewarded.
I once was a 16-year-old black kid who was born in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood when the community boasted of shops and stores that lined West 63rd Street like casinos along the Las Vegas Strip.
I once was a 16-year-old kid who kept in the not-so-deep recesses of his consciousness a concern and fear about kids my age and older who lived north of 47th Street, the proverbial dividing line behind "good" and "bad" neighborhoods. Living for 14 years in Hyde Park, immediately south of President Obama's home, provided me with a relatively safe sense of security although there still were thugs and problem pockets to avoid.
I once was a 16-year-old kid in a stable two-parent family that provided a social, moral and economic cocoon that allowed me to live like a 16-year-old kid should expect to live.
But today, sadly, I shudder and cringe at the thought of trying to wade through life as a 16-year-old African-American Chicago public school student. It scares me, and makes me feel bad for kids like Derrion whose stomach-turning death at the weapon-wielding hands of fellow teenagers has been broadcast worldwide. The footage is the stuff of coffee table conversations, community outrage and meetings of elected officials, among other expected reactions.
The idea of being caught up in a mob of kids -- some of whom he had to know and had encountered at school or in the neighborhood -- and having to defend yourself against blind-side punches and damn railroad ties was unfathomable to me back in 1977. We had fistfights and took name calling to another level. We didn't beat each other to death.
When a young person is killed or brutally attacked in Chicago or in any other major urban area, the responses are rote. In this case, the federal government plans to throw money at the endemic problem of violence in Chicago's schools. Community activists will continue to march and yell when the TV cameras are on. Chicago aldermen will lament the absence of a consistent and dramatic police presence in and around troubled schools.
The cops will complain about the omnipresent influence of drugs, guns and gangs on high school kids and how the "snitches get stitches" creed keeps law-abiding citizens' mouth shut in the face of crime.
Older adults will recollect the proverbial good old days and wonder what in the hell happened to an entire generation of lost kids. Parents will decry the lousy state of public schools, the ongoing miseducation of their kids by incompetent, uncaring teachers, and a lack of relevant social services. Youth agencies will decry the absence of fathers and strong male role models in too many families.
In the face of these responses, Derrion's family -- and others who've experienced the same pain -- has understandably, blamed multiple forces, rightfully starting with the kids who maliciously and repeatedly hit him while another student had the temerity and shamelessness to videotape the mayhem.
The students, who should be listened to first, remark that no one cares about their welfare; that they hate the fact that they believe a bright future is nothing more than pipe dream. They tell us they honestly believe no one cares about them in the way they need to be cared about.
Figure in how black, white and brown people literally and figuratively ostracize public housing residents and fractured, low-income families. Add in the reality that police officers, whose priorities are crime suppression law enforcement, cannot and will not be everywhere. Stir in the epidemic that is absentee black dads and don't-give-a-damn moms.
Factor in the allure and intimidation of gangs and drugs that fuel youth's CREAM philosophy: "Cash Rules Everything Around Me." Finally, include doses of unacceptably high unemployment among black youth and the ancillary ills that are hyper amplified in the black community and mix in an ignored sense of personal responsibility.
All of those factors play proportional roles in why Derrion is dead, and why some of us shake our heads in disbelief and others are numb and nonchalant about the loss of another black life. The further away you live, work and play from Fenger High School, the rough and tumble Roseland community and Altgeld Gardens public housing development, the more watered down your concern about the nauseating ingredients that led to Derrion's death.
Therein rests the essence of why a fight involving a 16-year-old in 1977 couldn't be any more dramatically different from the brawl that led to Derrion's sickening death. I empathize and sympathize with his family and friends.
But that's nowhere near enough. Everyone in Chicago and nationwide with a working moral compass should ask themselves what they're willing to do to help make the rest of 2009 and beyond look more like 1977 for young black kids. Non-answers are not allowed.