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Memphis’ Lost Generation

Lack of opportunity for our city’s youth is another kind of violence.

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Our city has a problem with violence.

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Of course, the violence I am talking about is the senseless shooting that took Myneishia "Shugnug" Johnson's life and left her 1-year-old son, Kylan, an orphan. I am talking about the one-man crime spree that took multiple lives, including that of Memphis Police Officer Verdell Smith, a man who was an undeniable asset to this community.

Both of these lives were stolen by young men who are frequently profiled as the main deliverers of violence and considered the main representation of many Memphians' idea of crime. But a closer look at the tangled web of our city's legacy would reveal a long, winding thread that connects these specters of crime, violence, and youth in Memphis.

Our city has a higher-than-average proportion of youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working. Across the nation, 13.8 percent of youth from this age group fit those criteria. In Memphis, that number hovers closer to 22 percent. These youth have been traditionally called "disconnected," an ironically existential play on their social status. Recently, scholars and social scientists have renamed them "opportunity youth," because a limitless well of opportunity lay before them ready for the taking.

Except that's not always the case.

Back to my earlier point about violence. Thinking about violence often conjures a visceral set of images for us: bloody flesh and broken bones. But there is another kind of violence that the United States of America — and Memphis, as a microcosm of America — is excellent at delivering. Sometimes it traffics in the same kind of visceral, bloody compensation that we are familiar with. But sometimes, the violence is more insidious.

Our dedication to systemic disenfranchisement is an example of this violence. Our idea that marginalized people somehow deserve their social standing and our refusal to engage aggressively with remedying both this mindset and our legacy of disenfranchising the poor, nonwhite, and uneducated is a kind of violence of the most cowardly sort.

Upper-middle-class Memphians near my neighborhood share recipes for pepper grenades to prevent home invasions (despite a 35 percent decrease in burglaries where I live) but spare no thought to the systemic violence that manifests as an enormous food desert south of them.

Are we losing sleep over the lack of worthwhile and well-paying employment for people with criminal records or insufficient education? The youth who are products of these environments are seen as problems, burdens, predators who only capitalize on opportunity when it's criminal. The truth is that these 45,000 youths in Memphis who are connected neither to gainful employment nor education are victims of violence as well. The two young men who are responsible for the deaths of so many productive members of our community likely have histories not only with the kinds of violence that they have committed, but also the kind of violence that is committed against them by us and our city. As black youth — the racial demographic that makes up a larger proportion of that 45,000 than any other — they and others like them, criminal and not, have faced even more pointed violence: specific anti-black policy in the form of crime bills that wrangle them into the criminal justice system for decades, a community that deeply resents them, and a lack of access to opportunity that keeps them free of options to cast off the shackles tying them to that socially engineered environment.

There is no comparing the severity of the violence. We mourn victims of that first, visceral violence because those wounds are so fresh and raw, but what of the violence that we perpetuate with our political foot-dragging, with our dedication to the maintenance of white supremacy, with criminally low wages for the most needy workers, with entire swaths of the city disconnected from essential (and deserved) social services?

When will we unite as a city and mourn that violence? Especially when that violence so often manifests as the other kind, the raw kind, the bloody kind? There are many ideas about how to engage these youth, and so few of them seem to be "repair the effects of the systemic violence that we have wrought on these children and their communities."

In order to develop a concrete solution for our city's problem with violence, we need to focus on ensuring that all Memphians — including those who are young and full of potential — are able to access that limitless well of opportunity.

Troy L. Wiggins is a Memphian and writer whose work has appeared in the Memphis Noir anthology, Make Memphis magazine, and The Memphis Flyer.

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