Is Growing Up Poor In Winston A Form Of Russian Roulette?

Recently The Winston-Salem Journal reported that an 18-year-old young man took his life Monday night. The young man, identified by The Journal as Diante Blackburn, was playing Russian Roulette and predictably, he lost. This is tragedy for the young man’s family and the community. I can only imagine the shock that friends and family are experiencing. I don’t want to exploit Blackburn’s death. But there needs to be something said when such a shocking event occurs.

Five days have passed since and our local corporate media outlets haven’t asked any questions. All we know right now is that an 18-year-old African-American took his life on Reid Street (which is off of Sprague Street).

Diante Blackburn’s death received a mere press release from The Journal, despite Blackburn’s death being the paper’s most popular story of the week. They’ve failed to do any follow-up stories.

Screenshot from, 4-23-17

By contrast, when Jason Messer, a 17-year-old white male from Stokesdale died after falling at Hanging Rock in February, The Journal ran over 10 articles on that young man’s life and death. I’m not trying to weigh the death of one young man against another. But why is Winston’s paper of record more interested in the death of a white teenager that occurred in Stokes County, than the death of a black teenager that occurred here in Winston? Do black lives not matter to The Winston-Salem Journal?

The public would like to know more about the short, tragic life of Diante Blackburn. What was he like? What school did he attend? What plans did he have for his future? What dreams were cut short? How are his friends and family coping with his shocking death? What do members of the community think? And most importantly, how can we as a community restore hope to young people in East Winston? Is growing up poor in Winston a form of Russian roulette?

Diante Blackburn’s death speaks to the hopelessness that many young people experience today. Winston is a sprawling city with an affluent downtown surrounded by many pockets of poverty. Our city mirrors the economic polarization that the whole country is seeing. America is increasingly a country of haves and have-nots, with less and less middle ground.

Over the last 40 years, productivity gains have been divorced from wage increases. Unionization rates have declined, wages have stagnated, jobs have been offshored. Jobs that remain tend to be low wage service jobs or high paying jobs that require advanced degrees that are beyond the reach of average folks. Gone are the days when 18-year-olds like Diante Blackburn could get a job at Hanes or Reynolds with relative ease and have reasonable confidence in obtaining a middle-class lifestyle.

Diante Blackburn’s death speaks to the lack of economic mobility in our community. Forsyth County is actually the second worst county in the entire country for income mobility for children in poor families. According to a  2015 study, featured in the New York Times, Forsyth County is “among the worst counties in the U.S. in helping poor children climb up the income ladder. It ranks 2nd out of 2,478 counties, better than almost no county in the nation.”

The Poverty Thought Forces’ Final Report, makes it abundantly clear, entrenched poverty is the most important public policy challenge that Winston faces. But that problem of poverty continues to be largely ignored as the city pours economic resources into Downtown Winston. Downtown Winston has been remade in the last 10-15 years. It’s time for us to focus on the rest of the city, particularly Winston’s neglected urban core. Diante Blackburn was a child of Winston’s urban core.

Winston should be a city of that works for all its residents. It shouldn’t be a city where children are condemned to a lifetime of poverty and hopelessness due to their zip code. We urgently need to have a public dialogue on desegregating the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System. Bold programs job programs for high school graduates should also be discussed. Diante Blackburn’s death shouldn’t be treated as a statistic, but rather as a canary in a coal mine.


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