The late 20th century saw an epidemic increase in rates of youth violence. Focused in urban areas, the violence was fueled by lack of economic opportunity, the sudden prevalence of guns and hard drugs, and ineffective police tactics. Rates of youth violence have declined since their peak in the mid-1990s, though they still remain much higher than pre-epidemic levels, and some areas have not seen any decline at all.
Urban youth violence is one of the defining elements of the life and culture of urban youth. Whether vilified by parents, politicians and journalists or glorified by recording artists, movies and some youth themselves, almost all parties agree that violence defines the territory of urban youth. Pedro Noguera and other observers have argued that there is a strong normative imperative for urban youth, and especially African-American urban youth, to engage in violence as a mark of manhood. Such norms are nothing new: they have been found in almost all societies throughout recorded history and even before. Even so, there is a strong perception that urban areas now have something of a monopoly on this tradition of violent culture; whether this perception can be verified empirically is open to debate. Large cities certainly tend to have higher rates of violent crime than the national average, though there is still a great deal of variety in crime rates among urban areas.
Either way, violence has come to define the culture of urban youth. And either way, violence has its consequences. In addition to any fear or socio-economic disturbance that youth violence may cause, the direct result is that homicide is now the leading cause of death among African-American youth, and the second-leading cause of death for youth in general. Because of this, the Surgeon General and other public health experts have begun to approach youth violence as a medical epidemic, a matter of public health, and to act against it just as they would against an infectious disease.
In this context, “urban” refers to the densely-populated central districts of a large metropolitan area. Though it technically denotes only a particular geographic area, the term implicitly refers to a certain defining culture of American cities. Specifically, that culture is generally considered to be ethnically non-white, to have low economic and academic opportunity, and to have a strong presence of youth violence-all features that are minimally present in many rural and most suburban areas.
The word “youth” in this article refers to anyone under the age of 25, as violence beyond this age tends to take a very different form. Youth violence is a distinct phenomenon from adult violence: notably, only about 20% of teens who engage in violent behavior will continue to do so into their 20s.
“Violence” here refers to the use or threat of use of potentially lethal weapons with the intent of inflicting serious injury. The US justice system distinguishes four types of crimes that entail such violence: armed robbery, aggravated assault, rape and homicide.
Urban youth violence is distinguishable from youth violence in other areas by being more widespread and largely gang-driven. Youth violence in suburban areas is typified by the school shooting, in which an isolated individual attacks multiple people in a single, often suicidal incident, motivated by a long history of pent-up grievances. Urban youth violence, in contrast, is generally a single attack upon a single, targeted individual, for a specific recent grievance. These situations tend to aggregate into conflicts between rival groups of young people, in which both sides tend to be on the fringes of established society. This is in contrast to the suburban model, in which a single fringe individual acts against the established majority. In many cases, urban gangs exist to exploit a black-market economy, and youth violence is common among rival gangs’ less disciplined junior members. However, in other cases gangs are not organized for economic reasons, and exist instead as a sort of social group for their violent members.
Studies of youth violence have investigated how every possible influence on a youth’s life could be a violent influence. Given the huge variance of such influences, there is necessarily a huge variance in the theorized causes of youth violence. Most can be grouped into two categories: risk factors and situational factors. Situational factors are the events preceding a violent action that directly caused the action. For example, if a youth were to get into an argument with a friend, feel insulted and then shoot at him, the original dispute that started the argumentand the words of the insult would both be situational causes. These causes can stretch even further into the past: if the youth was particularly stressed that day because he had failed a class, or if he only owned a gun in the first place because he bought one from a friend, these would also be situational causes.
Risk factors focus on statistical correlations, rather than concrete events, and tend to look at longer-term causes. A risk factor is any context that correlates with violent behavior and can reasonably be argued to be a cause. For example, having parents who were involved in violence is a strong risk factor: youth with violent parents are statistically more likely to become violent themselves, and it can be readily argued how the habits and values that lead to violent behavior are passed from parent to child. Research has found that the strongest risk factors are on the peer level: gang membership is an obvious example, but just as strong is being part of a delinquent peer group, even without any formal organization. An even stronger risk, in fact, is for a youth to have weak social ties overall. Other strong risk factors include coming from a family with low socio-economic status, having antisocial parents, being male, and using drugs or alcohol at a young age. Smaller risk factors include aggressive and restless behavior, poor relationships with parents, low performance in school, low IQ, exposure to media violence at a young age, and many others. These risk factors function differently at different ages: family factors and exposure to violence or drugs are much stronger risks before age 11, while peer factors, psychological factors and school performance are stronger risks after this age.
Note that no degree of risk factors guarantees that a youth will become violent. Risk factors are tools of statistical analysis not meant to be used in individual cases; in fact, most youth that exhibit risk factors for violence do not actually wind up becoming violent.
Most common explanations for why youth are violent tend to focus on a single risk factor or situational factor. For example, a concerned adult might argue that youth become violent from playing violent video games and watching violent movies. Parents will often feel that their children become violent because of the bad influence of their friends. A school administrator, in turn, might explain the violent behavior of students by pointing to parental neglect. A political reformer will point to the lack of opportunity in local schools as the key cause. Community members might explain past acts of violence as the real problem. Such violent acts put the whole community on edge and create a culture where violence is the norm. And the youth themselves will likely point to their particular grievances as the reason for their behavior.
Academic studies have empirically found that all these influences and many more can cause youth to become violent, and each of them, understandably, tends to lead to the others as well. In an urban system marked by violence, youth are receiving stimuli from all sides, prompting them to engage in violence, and no one part of the system can hardly be blamed more than any other. However, this also means the solution can come from any part of the system as well, or from all parts at once. In addition to examining the risk factors that surround urban youth, academic studies have also looked at what kinds of programs, policies and interventions can be empirically proven to reduce violence for the youth involved. These interventions can target almost any agent in the urban system: parents, schools, businesses, police, governments and the youth themselves all feature their own particular opportunities and resistances to intervention.
Most of the literature on urban youth violence examines intentional programs that can be designed, funded and evaluated by a formal study. The most effective ones work directly with youth and their families, providing training in conflict resolution, parenting tactics and other life skills. Mentoring programs also fall into this category. The least effective methods are those that expose youth to greater degrees of stress and violence, such as boot camps, “scared straight” programs, grade non-promotion and trial in adult courts. Longer sentences have been shown to reduce crime rates, but they also reduce the likelihood that the youth being sentenced will learn to change their behavior.
Our analysis here will move toward seeing community development as the ultimate goal in preventing urban youth violence. Such a conclusion grows from the general picture presented in the compilation of studies. Their conclusions point to the need for violent youth needing to be exposed to peaceful and productive lifestyles by any means possible. Anything that can put youth into non-violent surroundings tends to be effective, and anything that puts them into violent surroundings tends to cause more violence.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What role, if any, do you feel there is for violence in modern society?
What sorts of methods for preventing youth violence have you heard in your own experience to be effective? Do you know of any that are counterproductive?
Why do you think youth engage in violent behavior? Did reading this article change that perspective in any way? What further stories and studies do you need?
Do you agree with the account here of the differences between urban youth violence and youth violence in other situations? If not, how would you describe the urban situation?
Youth violence is one of the most important problems facing urban youth.
All parts of society that have influence on youth are responsible for the culture of violence, in proportion to their influence.
Youth violence is not an intractable problem: there are a variety of programs that have been empirically found to be both effective and replicable in other contexts.