Homicide among young Black men in Toronto: An unrecognized public health crisis?
Although the City of Toronto has recently witnessed an ongoing decrease in crime, the situation for its low-income Black communities is gravely disconcerting. With a Black community homicide victimization rate about four times that of the average city rate and a Black male homicide victimization rate almost 12 times that of the overall population, the Black Toronto community in general, and low income young Black male residents of Toronto in particular, face unacceptable risks of excess mortality and/or early death.
Like many Aboriginal communities facing inexplicable bouts of suicide, Toronto’s predominantly Black neighbourhoods at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum are experiencing acts of violence, in this case committed by young Black men, that we haven’t been able to explain. Rarely is the victim non-Black, which lends credence to the perception that the violence is a Black phenomenon. The persistent rate of violence among young Black men has elicited a fair amount of criminological analyses but little public health research.
Although turf wars between gangs, illegal guns, and insufficient policing are often blamed for the chronic violence, the effects of child maltreatment, household anti-social behaviour, and stressful life events may have greater associations with such violence. Furthermore, an intersection of racialized status, racism-induced stress, racial profiling and mass incarceration, may be fueling the high homicide victimization rate, with no end in sight. Young Black males are now approximately one-fifth of Ontario’s incarcerated male youth population and Blacks are 9 per cent of Canada’s federal prison population. Short-term “tough on crime” attempts at curtailing the situation, such as intrusive policing practices and harsh prison sentencing, may very well be exacerbating the problem.
A public health perspective
The relevance of a public health perspective is supported by variables linking crime to social isolation, persistent high unemployment, and concentrated poverty. This line of research suggests that people’s understanding of their labour and life situation shape how they respond to high levels of unemployment and poverty. These interpretations are contingent on what people believe causes their poverty and unemployment and the actual duration of these conditions. The disproportionately large segment of Black male youth facing huge barriers to good education and well paid professions would no doubt perceive their situation as socially unjust.
An unrecognized public health crisis calls for a different kind of approach. CAMH has addressed the challenge through programs such as SAPACCY, the Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth. It has drawn attention to co-morbidities that fuel such violence as well as the cultural specific interventions that can make a real difference for affected individuals, families and communities.
CAMH’s expertise in parenting and family support for at risk youth and families could conceivably lend support to wider school and primary care based initiatives aimed at reducing risks and harms as well as enhancing specific protective factors. Longstanding solutions to this unrecognized public health crisis will only be realized, however, when focus and resources are shifted from the current criminal justice approach to the underlying social determinants of health.
About this guest blogger: Akwatu Khenti is the Director of CAMH’s Office of Transformative Global Health (OTGH). Under Akwatu’s leadership, OTGH develops, implements and sustains collaborative programs for health professionals in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa and focuses on building capacity to meet local needs through education and health promotion training programs. Akwatu is also engaged in local primary care and stigma research aimed at strengthening addiction and mental health services.