Lost children


ROBERT Sandifer, the 11-year-old who allegedly murdered a 14-year-old girl and was himself executed "gangland style" in Chicago recently, has become yet another poster child of urban savagery.

The boy, whose nickname was Yummy, was slight and brown-skinned, and looked even younger than his age. Nonetheless, he already had a long police record when witnesses identified him as the killer who shot 14-year-old Shavon Dean. After eluding police for three days, he was finally found in a pool of blood under a seedy railroad viaduct. He had been shot twice in the back of the head.

Like many lost children, Yummy came from a fractured family. His mother, a 29-year-old with six other children, has been arrested more than 40 times, primarily for prostitution, and is by her own admission a crack addict. Before Yummy's third birthday, he was treated for scars and bruises reportedly inflicted by an abusive father.

The boy's tale of abuse, neglect and crime unfortunately is not unusual in urban America circa 1994 -- and it tells a larger story about deep problems facing this country. Although the boy's gang affiliation was a major element of the story, the media's focus on gangs squandered an opportunity to convey the complex conditions that produced the life and times of Robert Sandifer.

Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, warns that black children face their worst crisis since slavery. But the press downplays or ignores factors like the escalating poverty rate for black children -- currently at more than 50 percent -- in favor of a sensationalist news formula that portrays inner cities as crime-ravaged environs full of children killing children and children having children.

Or, as one critic colorfully put it, "a nether world where the youth are either locked-up, knocked-up or glocked-up." ("Glock" is street slang for gun.) This standard portrayal has further distanced the inner city from mainstream America and allows politicians to win votes by demonizing social spending, as we saw during the crime bill debate.

Crime coverage is charging the political atmosphere, but Alex Kotlowitz, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, suggests that reporters covering inner-city violence should put away their preconceptions, practice more empathy, spend more time in the neighborhoods and put more effort into studying the histories of the communities they cover. Mr. Kotlowitz, who is white, did as much in researching his critically acclaimed book, "There Are No Children Here," which chronicles the violence-scarred lives of a family living in Chicago's public housing. He argues that journalists must learn to bridge "the very deep and wide chasm that separates the two Americas."

Journalists can responsibly document the realities of inner-city life. The Chicago Tribune, for example, made an admirable attempt to take crime coverage to a new level with a yearlong series titled "Killing Our Children." The series was precipitated by the sniping murder of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis and contained more than 200 stories and editorials. The project attempted to place youth violence into context by closely examining individual incidents.

According to Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune's deputy managing editor, the project helped readers better understand the complex swirl of issues that provoke the high levels of crime and violence now plaguing inner-city America. It "opened up a whole new vista in terms of reporting on these other issues," she says.

But that was only one paper, in one city. With politicians and pundits more concerned about reinforcing stereotypes than addressing the real issues of the inner city, urban residents are forced to go it alone.

In Chicago, the Robert Sandifer tragedy has prompted a swirl of activity designed to address the problem of youth violence. Robert Warner, former executive director of a male mentoring group called "Project Image" and father of actor Malcolm Jamal Warner, urges a door-to-door approach: "We need to confront the devils of crime and community dissolution eyeball-to-eyeball and make the commitment not to flinch."

This community involvement is critical, for more capital punishment and more mandatory sentences will not save the Robert Sandifers of the future. But while the entire city of Chicago now seems united in outrage and ready to act, history offers no guarantees. Unfortunately, urban America can hardly afford additional delays.

Salim Muwakkil is a contributing columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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