Will Smith was a freakishly fast athlete, but he couldn’t outrun New Orleans. The details of his murder are still hazy, but one thing is for sure: that city killed him. By all accounts, Smith was an upstanding family man who loved the city and contributed a great deal to it; but it wasn’t enough. At 6’3 and weighing 280, he still wasn’t large enough to rise above the realities of New Orleans and neither are we. Regardless of how personally responsible he or any of us are, we’re still vulnerable to the worst elements of our cities. Unless we commit ourselves not only to personal achievement but also participation in radical social transformation, we all remain at risk.
Conditions in New Orleans can be bleak, especially for blacks. In Post-Katrina New Orleans, over 50 percent of black males are unemployed and the city’s prison population is 90 percent black. The median income for whites is $60,000, for blacks the number is merely $25,000. Facing such grim prospects, it is no wonder that some pursue employment in the illegal drug industry and naturally, violent crime ensues. In 2010 the population of the city was only 343,829 but it managed 165 homicides last year. With 8,175,133 residents New York City clocked 333 murders in 2014. If New York had murder rates similar to New Orleans, that 333 would be close to 4,000. If New Orleans had rates similar to New York, their 165 murders would have been a mere 14.
The young men and women caught up in this cycle have an origin. One of my oldest friends grew up in New Orleans and she vividly remembers attending schools that, at times, lacked running water or the ability to serve hot lunches (although a $1.8 billion investment has dramatically improved facilities). That friend and other natives can also tell you that police violence and corruption are the norm in New Orleans, another complicating factor. Indeed, Smith’s killer sued the city and six police officers after they gunned down his father in 2005. One of the officers involved in that lawsuit actually dined with Will Smith just minutes before he was killed. How could Smith possibly outrun all of that?
Will Smith and I were around the same age. Hell, we both earned degrees from Ohio State University. I suspect that along the way he’d heard, as I did, that his degree and good choices would lead him to a great life. Somehow, the narrative goes, we can magically escape all that ails “those people” if we practiced “personal responsibility” and made ourselves successful. It’s simply not true. Dr. King said on many occasions that, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny… An inescapable network of mutuality.” Understanding this means that just as Smith could not outrun New Orleans, you and I cannot outrun the most desperate conditions in our cities either.
Ultimately, our daily actions must reflect the urgency felt by the most disadvantaged: how we invest our time and dollars must demonstrate a commitment to our entire community. It is necessary because unemployment “over there” impacts us “over here”. It means that lack of educational opportunity in the hood impacts us. It means that, despite all of our achievements, we must be committed to collective progress and the freedom of all people. It means that we must sacrifice some comfort and conveniences to ensure that we are investing in others. Political advocacy, cooperative economics and even mentoring the most vulnerable must be priorities. Whether we are as accomplished as Smith or simply fortunate enough to be employed, our fate is ultimately linked to that of our whole community.