he question that everyone is asking about the Los Angeles man who was gunned down in broad daylight in Midtown Manhattan Monday is how a black man with so many life advantages could get caught up with murderers.
It’s a really presumptuous question.
When a black man or his ancestors climb out of poverty into middle and upper middle class life, he isn’t automatically ensconced from street violence. And equally important: street violence isn’t his only threat. Wealthy people hire hit men too.
But there’s something so compelling about this question, especially to the young, black professionals and bohemians who read this site. One reason is that we wonder if it could happen to us. Another reason is that we’ve seen it happen on varying levels to people we know.
There’s not a whole lot of information available about the victim, Brandon Woodward. He was 32, came from a middle class family, belonged to Jack-and-Jill, promoted parties, ran with a glamorous and successful crowd, and was attending a law school in the Los Angeles area. At the same time, he had been arrested about 20 times, including a recent arrest on charges of cocaine possession and in 2009, an arrest on charges of robbery.
Brandon Woodward’s story haunts me partly because it reminds me a lot of my cousin Rodney, who lived next door to us growing up. My brother and I lived with our penny-pinching blue-collar father in a mobile home with few comforts, whereas Rodney’s father had a master’s degree in one of the sciences and had a high-paying job working at one of the local manufacturing plants.
Our dad gave us two or three toys per year and almost never brought us cookies, candy, potato chips, cake or other snacks. Rodney’s kitchen and bedroom were so full of sweets, goodies, toys and electronics that it looked like a merger of F.A.O. Schwarz and the snacks aisle of the local Winn Dixie grocery story. We had a ColecoVision, the 1980s video game system, and two or three games. He had an Atari with as many games as he wanted and, for good measure, a desktop computer where he could play more video games. Adolescence brought him a motor bike, a car and more grown-up toys.
Rodney never wanted for much. And when he graduated from high school, he attended a local community college. I lost track of his day-to-day educational and career progress when I left home for college myself in 1993. But the last time I saw him, in 2006, he was living in a fine house in an Atlanta suburb, working as a software salesman.
It looked like his family was living the American dream yet again. So when I invited him to my wedding in 2008, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t come because he was locked up, sentenced to almost 20 years on cocaine trafficking charges. Another cousin said he sold the drugs to an undercover agent.
Sociological explanations for failures like his really don’t interest me. Sometimes it signals the tenuousness of black middle class status. Sometimes it signals personal demons. But what it always signals is a waste of talent, of opportunity, and life.
Brandon Woodward’s story also haunts me because I know that for every Brandon who dies and every cousin Rodney who goes to prison, hundreds of young black people die — on the streets or in prison — unceremoniously. Just this morning, a Brooklyn woman was shot to death on her way to Brookdale Hospital, where her daughter was receiving treatment. It’ll be interesting to see if any of the local papers bother to tell her story.