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excerpted from:  Alfreda A. Sellers-Diamond, Disposable Children in Black Faces: The Violence Initiative as Inner-city Containment Policy, 62 UMKC Law Review 423 (Spring, 1994) (224 Footnotes) (Full Article) (Prof. Randall Note: I have requested a link of the full article from Prof. Diamond.)


Alfreda DiamondOn February 11, 1992, Dr. Frederick Goodwin, then Director of the Alcohol Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration and main federal psychiatrist, announced that the chief public concern in the United States was violence. Moreover, Dr. Goodwin announced that violence was a “public health” concern that mandated the policy-making intervention of public health agencies. He proposed that various public health agencies participate in an initiative to combat the growth of violence in the inner-city areas of the United States. He advocated that these agencies, among them the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the Centers for Disease Control, and others under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services, utilize their individual and combined “expertise” in detecting “individual vulnerability” to violent behavior. Thus, a major federal initiative to combat violence came to the public's attention. As announced by Dr. Goodwin, however, the “Violence Initiative,” as it came to be more popularly known, was to be more than simply an in depth and more efficient effort toward collective policy making. It was to be a response to the growing rates of violence in the inner city.

As one of the federal government's responses to this growing rate of violence, the Violence Initiative was scheduled for full operation in 1994. The Initiative planned to collect and coordinate many federal projects involving violence research under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services and its member agencies.

The Violence Initiative as a concept, however, has assumed a role in popular understanding as being both a distinct message as well as a messenger. Essentially, the message—a body of research that ranges in substantive study from malnutrition, poor health care for pregnant mothers and its effect on newborns, to bio-psychiatric interventions—has been subsumed in the identity of Dr. Goodwin, whose delivery of the message was premised on the suggestion that much of the violent behavior in the inner city may have biological or genetic origins. A second major premise of the message announced by Goodwin is that factors of individual vulnerability and predisposition to violent behavior exist—factors that may be detected at an early age.

With this, it was announced that the focus of the initiative's intervention and problem-solving policy mandate was to be the children of the inner city. What this really meant, however, was that the focus of the Violence Initiative would be Black or African-American youth.

In one of the first introductions of the Violence Initiative, Dr. Goodwin remarked:

If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way it is for males, to knock each other off and in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyperaggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more to offset the fact that more of them are dying.

Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner-city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn't just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution.

The references to the naturalness of hyperaggressive and hypersexual survival-oriented simian behavior, and the suggestion that similar behavior takes place in inner cities removed from social controls, together with the collective representation of “man” as the primary “civilizing” force in the world, camouflage and yet make clear an underlying image of the White man as the primary civilizing force in the world. These remarks drew attention and sparked resistance to the research Goodwin suggested because once the focus of the Violence Initiative pointed towards the “inner city,” poor people of color understood the code from the smoke signal to mean that the Dr. Goodwin's discussion was about them.

Had these remarks not been made, the Violence Initiative may have proceeded quietly and gone unnoticed amidst the federal government's bureaucratic maze. However, the images created by Goodwin's words raised doubts as to whether children of the inner city were truly respected as legal entities, produced skepticism as to the true motives of those sponsoring programs, and suggested questions concerning the legitimacy of the endeavor.

Dr. Goodwin's remarks were made within a social, political, and scientific context that has provided tremendous growth opportunities for genetic research in recent years. Moreover, it has been recognized that genetic evidence may one day be commonly accepted by the courts in solving an array of legal issues including tort, criminal, trust and estate, family, and labor law. With these considerations as reference points, critics of the Violence Initiative recognized it as a specific threat to African-American children—threatening the creation of an “institutional apartheid” based on political motivations, fear, and intimidation. Still others voiced concern that the premises of the Violence Initiative were at odds with foundational premises of our Constitution, that “peoples' actions are based on free will, rather than on biology or social pressures.”

One result of Dr. Goodwin's announcement concerning the intent and the rationale of the Violence Initiative was his dismissal as Director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration and demotion to the position of Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. A spokesperson for Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that the demotion rendered the “matter as closed,” but significantly, the “matter” the spokesperson referred to was the disciplining of Goodwin for his intemperate remarks, not the Violence Initiative itself. Moreover, Goodwin's demotion was to the position of director of the agency responsible for funding the research associated with the Violence Initiative and, thus, did not suggest that his understanding and intent respecting the Violence Initiative was rejected.

Another result of the firestorm of protest that followed the Goodwin announcement was the appointment, in December 1992, of a panel to review the Violence Initiative. With the assistance of various Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) staff experts, the panel reviewed each of the 224 DHHS abstracts of research related to anti-social, aggressive, and violent behavior. According to the panel's report issued less than a month later in the waning days of the Bush administration, there was no evidence to support the allegations and suspicions levied against DHHS, subsequent to Dr. Goodwin's announcement. The panel concluded that a focus on violence as a public health problem was appropriate, and determined that none of the studies sought to establish a genetic link between race and violent behavior, thus, effectively exonerating the Violence Initiative, if not the words of Dr. Goodwin.

Even so, under a new Clinton Administration, the Violence Initiative was canceled as a coordinated effort, amidst continuing doubts as to the integrity and legitimacy of the endeavor. Significantly, however, what was cancelled was only the $400 million effort at coordination that constituted the Violence Initiative, and not the research efforts the Violence Initiative was meant to coordinate.

While inquiry in and of itself should never be threatening, the inquiry to have been conducted under and coordinated by the Violence Initiative cannot be separated from the attitudes of Frederick Goodwin, who so eloquently and honestly explained the focus of the program. Nor can it be separated from the attitudes of persons who share Goodwin's view, and who would seek to shape the research that underlay the Violence Initiative to serve those attitudes. Nor can the Violence Initiative be separated from the attitudes of our society as a whole, attitudes that are shaped by society's history and culture. Thus, this Article will show that the advent of the federal Violence Initiative threatened the personhood and the voice of African-Americans, and more particularly of African-American children, by fostering biological and reductionist theories of genetic linkage between criminally-violent behavior and inner-city youth. Furthermore, it decontextualized and dehistoricized the idea of violence, and devalued the worth of the African-American child by reinforcing gender and stereotypical concepts of African-American women and men.

The purpose of this Article is not to focus on the scientific and research data or techniques used by the Department of Health and Human Resources and other agencies or institutions conducting genetic and other research associated with the Violence Initiative. Rather, this Article will give historical context to the genetic essentialism and race-based ideology inherent in the Violence Initiative. This context will show the racially discriminatory purpose that underlies the Violence Initiative. Positing a disproportionate impact of the programs to be fostered by the Violence Initiative, this context questions the wisdom of the Violence Initiative as governmental policy and the application of a strict scrutiny standard in judging the constitutional validity of the Violence Initiative.

This Article is divided into six parts.

Part I is this introduction.

Part II presents a summary of relevant equal protection principles that emanate from the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Part III outlines the Violence Initiative as presented by Dr. Goodwin, and distinguishes the program from more prevalent models of sociological intervention.

Parts IV and V detail the historical context in which the Violence Initiative must be seen.

The concluding part of the Article, Part VI, will offer a cautionary perspective on the issues and questions raised by the program.