After the Confederate Flag Discussion Ends

Ten years ago, we began teaching Victim Impact Programming to incarcerated men. Victim Impact is a program that helps offenders understand the impact their choices have had on their victims in an attempt to help them make different choices that do NOT result in further victimization. As victim advocates, this was (and is) vitally important to us. We have spent most of our careers working with victims and survivors who have been victimized in terrible, awful ways and we wanted these men to get it. So, our initial approach was a bit heavy handed as we focused most of our energies on the impact of violence. We felt if we could just get them to understand the pain and hurt they had caused, they would change their behavior.

Thankfully, it only took us a couple of weeks to realize that though our ultimate goal to help them change their behavior toward others was solid, they were never going to get there if we did not broaden our own vision. Focusing all of our energies on the violence they were causing was going to end up being a wasted effort as it became clear that the violence was just one more symptom of a deeper problem. Not only did we need to help them understand the impact they were having on others, but they needed to understand the impact others have had on them.

Over the years, we have heard stories from these offenders of their parents stabbing them, fathers killing their mothers in front of them, brothers advising them to treat everyone like they had just raped their mama, and parents who were so desperate for drugs that they would “give” them for sexual favors in exchange for the substance. This is their normal. So it stands to reason, that when they have a problem, they resort to their normal. They become the hurters. This is no excuse for creating victims, but it is a fact. The people who are able to break this cycle are the ones who understand that violence and pain should not be normal. Another fact is this. No one, whether incarcerated or not, is going to care as deep about the pain of another if they don’t understand their own pain first.

But what does this have to do with the debate that rages over the Confederate flag?

On June 17th, a young white man filled with pain and suffering decided to create pain and suffering in others when he went to a Bible study in a predominately black congregation, opened fire, and killed nine souls. He claims his motivation was in response to the color of their skin. As it should have, his actions sent a country reeling and triggered an incredibly valid and important dialogue about the Confederate flag. Without question, the Confederate flag should be discussed. However, that should not be the only discussion because the flag is just a symbol and it’s removal does not end the broader and deeper problem.

In the days following this tragedy, there were murmurings of the broader and deeper problem as the “how” and “why” questions were asked. Unfortunately they lost traction almost as quickly as they were asked because these are the tough questions. These are the ones that don’t have readily available answers. But here’s the thing. We cannot afford to ignore these. If we want to see systemic changes in people, we, as a society, MUST take the time to learn, understand, and RESPOND to what was driving his behavior. He didn’t just wake up one day and decide to do this. It was a process that we, as a society, failed to intervene on.

According to several news reports which have pulled court documents from his childhood, the shooter was raised in an environment that included domestic violence. Lots of kids are raised in domestic violence who never go on to hurt anyone else. They learn how to break the cycle. So being raised in a violent home does not excuse anything. However, it does provide a very important explanation. One that we need to understand and do something about if we are serious about not wanting something like this to happen again. For every child who learns how to break the cycle, there are many more that do not learn that and find themselves involved in more violence – whether it is in private relationships or in public settings.

Abusive power and control lies at the heart of almost every crime. Abusive power and control lies to its host and tells them that they have rights they do not have and entitlements that are not theirs. Abusive power and control is generally taught and its best teacher is domestic violence. Being exposed to chronic abuse hurts kids. And there is lots of research to back this up:

Children in homes where domestic violence occurs are physically abused or seriously neglected at a rate 1500% higher than the national average. (National Woman Abuse Prevention Project, Washington, D.C. Vargas, L. Cataldo, J., & Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic violence and children. In G. R.Walz & R. K. Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling perspectives on counseling, 2005 (pp.67-69). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association)

Abused kids are arrested by the police four times more often than non-abused kids. (R Gelles & MA Straus (1988). Intimate Violence, New York: Simon and Schuster)

Children’s brains literally change. IQ’s lower and brains rewire to become more violent. (Children’s Bureau Express Volume 2, Number 2, 2001)

Children from domestic violence homes are sexually abused at a rate 15 times the national average. The national average is one in four girls and one in seven boys will be victims of child sexual abuse by the time they reach the age of 18. These are only reported numbers. (McKay, M. (1994). The link between domestic violence and child abuse: Assessment and treatment considerations. Child Welfare League of America, 73, 29-39.)

Children who have been raised in domestic violence have a 6% greater chance of committing suicide, 24% greater chance of committing a sexual assault crime, and a 50% greater likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol. (American Bar Association – Commission on Domestic Violence)

None of these are foregone conclusions. Every single person has the ability to learn and change their behaviors. The shooter made a choice that day. It was an active decision to kill others and for that he must be held accountable because lives have been ruined and now must be rebuilt. However, these numbers do represent real lives. They represent real babies being raised in real homes with real problems. They represent lives that have potential for good and they represent lives that need us. They need us to understand the impact their world is having on them. They need us to be brave and intervene on their behalf. They need us to reach out to the adult victim to let them know they are not alone and that help is available. They need us to get them help by notifying the Department of Children’s Services to these abusive environments. They need us, but so does society. Society needs us to help them so they don’t go on to create more victims. This world is difficult enough. No one needs to have to overcome victimization.

Could the shooter’s course have been changed? I believe so. But not through the simple removal of a symbol. To really change something, we have to get to the heart of the matter. We have to say that we are not going to tolerate any kind of violence towards any one because at the end of the day every single life matters.

So, continue the dialogue about the Confederate flag’s place in our society. But when that conversation is done, we need to make sure we start the next one. The one that begins with, “How do we help a child being raised in violence? What can we do as a neighbor? A school? Or a church? What is my responsibility to these kids?” Find the answer that feels right for you and then act. It will be in there that our society will become stronger, healthier, and more whole.

Written by Valerie Craig, Co-Founder and Director of Education

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