Ryan Clark, the 22-year-old residential adviser from Martinez, Ga., and senior with a triple major in psychology, biology and English, had great expectations of his future after graduating from Virginia Tech. He had already finished his coursework in December but was intent on crossing the graduation stage in May for all his family and numerous friends to see.
Clark, otherwise known as Stack to his friends, had set his sights high after graduation – with hopes of earning a Ph.D in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. It is ironic given that his dreams were cut short by a mentally ill loner by the name of Seung-Hui Cho, whose deadly shooting spree claimed 32 lives, including that of Clark who stumbled across the shooter in his own efforts to assist one of his residents – 19-year-old Emily Hilscher – the massacre's first victim. He lost his life rushing to the aid of another student, which did not come as a huge surprise to those who knew him. Clark, a member of Virginia Tech's Marching Virginians band for five years, spent his summers as a counselor at a camp for disabled kids.
His mother raised him at an early age to believe that he shouldn't discount anything until he tried it at least once. His twin, Bryan, told media outlets that his brother thought he could do anything he put his mind to and encouraged others to adhere to that belief. Fellow bandmate Kimberly Daniloski told mourners who recently gathered for his funeral at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Martinez that Clark had "had so many friends. So many people loved him. I loved him ... I was better when I was with him, and I am better because I knew him," according to the Associated Press.
In some ways, Ryan Clark, a young Black man who appeared to be defying the less-than-spectacular odds faced by a large percentage and on the fast track to prosperity and prominence, died much the way young Black men living in the inner cities – by gunshot wound. As the fallout from the Virginia Tech tragedy begins to clear, we must remember that the same kind of wanton violence that put Blacksburg, Va. on the world's radar screen happens everyday – albeit on a smaller scale in terms of victim count — in the streets of our nation's urban areas.
According to the National Urban League's The State of Black America 2007, Black men are nine times more likely to be murdered by firearms than White men. Those between the ages of 15 and 24 are nearly six times more likely to die by gunshot wound – whether accidentally or purposefully – than their White counterparts.
From 1976 to 2004, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, on average, a disproportionate percentage of murder victims were Black – 46.9 percent. In addition, a higher percentage of them were victims of drug-related or gun-related homicides than Whites: nearly 62 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
In Virginia, where Clark's life was cut tragically short, nearly half of all homicides happened to Black men in 2004, roughly twice that of White men, according to BJS. Nearly 70 percent of all murders that year were committed using handguns.
Now, maybe you'd expect that in a state like Virginia, which receives a C- grade from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence, a group founded by former Reagan White House Press Secretary James Brady that is devoted to stronger gun-control laws nationwide.
But in New York, which received a B+ from the Brady Campaign, Black men made up a slightly smaller percentage of the state's murder victims – 46.4 percent – in 2004 even though a lower percentage – 50 percent — of all homicides involved firearms.
Even in Clark's home state of Georgia, which earned a D from the Brady Campaign and where 64 percent of all homicides were gun-related, 47.6 percent of murders claimed Black male lives.
The bottom line is that Black men are still making up a disproportionate percentage of murder victims in America – regardless of where they live and the extent of gun control employed.
But, what makes Clark's case rare for a Black man is that he died at the hands of a man who was not of his own race. According to the Bureau of Justice's 1976 to 2004 assessment, an average 94 percent of Black murders were committed by Blacks. For Whites, 86 percent of White murders came at the hands of other Whites.
In The State of Black America 2007, we concluded that Blacks held two-thirds the status of Whites in the area of social justice, which consists of two categories – equality before the law (which makes up 80 percent of the social justice index) and victimization and mental anguish (which makes up 20 percent). Some of the responsibility for our victimization ultimately comes back to the African American community.
We cannot fully blame social, economic and political disparities within our country for the violence we inflict upon ourselves. We must address the issue of our young men dying way too young from the inside as well as from the outside. Whether they live on a college campus or in the inner cities, whether they are murdered by a drug dealer of their own race or a madman of another race, our community's future leaders don't deserve to die so senselessly so early in life.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.