Violence: It’s Not Just “Cultural”

By: Ellen Albritton

This week I chose to write this blog post on an issue that is very close to home. This is not only the case because it comes from our own local newspaper, but also because this is an issue the children at my service learning site, which is just minutes from SLU, must deal with on a regular basis. The article starts off being about the recent burial of a sixteen year old girl who was shot and killed as a result of gang violence, but most of the article focuses on the larger “culture of violence” that plagues St. Louis, particularly the violence perpetrated by local gang members.

The effect that this type of violence has on the well-being of individuals can be enormous, especially for children. Through the research I have been doing for my paper on this topic, many studies have shown that youth that grow up in neighborhoods with high levels of violence exhibit similar health and personal development issues of children who have grown up in war-torn countries. Sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating, and traumatic flashbacks all wear on the psyche of children and make it more difficult for them to do well in school. Living in a violent community can also lead to difficulty forming attachments, trusting adults and others in authority, and developing sense of one’s own identity. I see all of these characteristics in many of the children at my service learning site in North City. I have also seen a marked difference in these kids in the days immediately following a violent incident in their neighborhood. In fact, I am truly amazed at the resiliency of the beautiful children I have had the honor of getting to know.

While I think it is vitally important to be concerned about the effect that violence can have on a person’s well-being, I also think it is equally important for us to be concerned about how we conceptualize and what language we use to describe an issue such as this one. The writer titled the article “Girl’s Burial Spotlights a Culture of Violence.” I think we must be very wary of characterizing community violence as result of the “culture of poverty” or the “gang culture.” Instead of focusing on the deficiencies we see in the “cultures” of communities that experience high levels of violence or of gangs, I think we should examine a type of violence that is very prevalent in our entire society—structural violence. This structural violence is the result of the way our society has been constructed–the way that some are denied their basic human rights and struggle to have their basic human needs met while others reap the benefits of a long history of systemic advantage. I think that the more we try to attribute this violence to “culture,” the less likely we will be to challenge the social structures that cause it.

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