Chicago's Dr. Carl Bell, Gang Member Turned Psychiatrist, Mounts An Offensive Against Black-on-Black Violence

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dr. Carl Bell, 40, is preaching what he calls "primary prevention" to a basement Bible class at Chicago's all-black Messiah-St. Bartholomew Church. Dressed as usual in sneakers, jeans and a baseball cap, Bell, a psychiatrist, also sports a T-shirt proclaiming his cause: "Stop black-on-black murder."

Jumping onstage, he begins to write some grim numbers on a chalkboard, sad statistics that dramatize an epidemic of black-on-black brutality. Kids in general may see too much violence on TV, but many black kids see too much violence in their own homes. Surveys conducted by Bell among 536 children in three public schools in a high crime area on the South Side of Chicago reveal that by age 11, four of every five of those black children have personally witnessed a beating. One out of three has seen a stabbing or shooting. Now he plans to deliver a little shock talk to his preteen-age audience.

"I'm here today to talk about the leading cause of death among black males between 15 and 44," he begins. "The cause is murder. If something is not done to change things, one of every 21 of you boys will be murdered before you're 44." The kids titter nervously. One youth whispers to his friend, "I know it won't be me."

"Now why are all these black men being murdered?" Bell asks. Boys and girls answer from around the room: "Robbers"... "the devil"... "drugs"... "gangs"... "bad people." Bell cuts them short.

"All y'all wrong," he says. "The answer is 'us' and 'guns.' Nine of every 10 murdered black men are killed by another black, and three of every four are killed by a black who is either family or friend."

For the next hour Bell continues his barrage of statistics. Why are guns necessary? he asks the kids.

"Protection!" they answer unanimously.

"All y'all wrong again," he tells them. "If you have a loaded gun in your home, that gun is 118 times more likely to kill a family member or a friend than a burglar. But for every murder, there are 100 other acts of black-on-black violence—sexual molestations, rapes, robberies and physical assaults. And do you know what sends more black mothers to the emergency room than all the auto accidents, muggings and rapes combined? Husbands, that's who. We have got to teach black people to stop beating each other to pieces right in their own living rooms."

One of only 800 black psychiatrists in the entire country, Dr. Bell runs Chicago's Community Mental Health Council, a state-supported clinic where he and a staff of 85 treat 2,000 victims of violence each year. The facilities stand just a few blocks from the South Side ghetto that Bell once roamed as a member of the notorious Blackstone Rangers street gang. The clinic's motto: "We dare to care."

Bell also dares to speak out. "In 1983," he says, "blacks, who represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 44 percent of the nation's homicide victims. In Chicago, people in black police districts are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime. In just one year—1981—more blacks lost their lives from black-on-black murder in the U.S. than the number of black men killed during the Vietnam War."

Some members of the black community have accused Bell of airing dirty linen and fostering the stereotype that blacks are violent and dangerous. Responds Bell: "The seeds of violence are rooted in poverty, not race. Poor whites suffer from violence from family and friends as much as poor blacks. I'm talking only about black violence because I'm a black psychiatrist treating black patients. The victim of crime inevitably becomes the perpetrator of crime, and we have to break this vicious cycle."

Bell is a prime example of the cycle broken against all odds. The younger of two boys born to William and Pearl Bell, both social workers with master's degrees, Carl was a youthful under-achiever with an IQ of 140. His parents separated soon after he was born, and by age 11 he had joined the Blackstone Rangers and learned the fine art of making zip guns. A turning point came at 15, when he ran afoul of a high school geometry teacher. "I screwed up something in his class, and he embarrassed me by asking in front of everybody, 'Mr. Bell, are you going to use your brains, or are you going to be a jerk for the rest of your life?' I was furious, and I decided to get him—but on his terms," says Bell. "From that day on, every time he forgot to cross a for dot an i or explain a theorem properly, I jumped all over him. Suddenly I had learned to learn, and I was on my way."

Bell finished high school with straight A's, enrolled at Chicago City College, and then watched his world collapse. His older brother, Bill, by then a policeman, was shot by two fellow officers while he was assisting in an arrest. Explains Bell: "He was off duty and out of uniform, and when the two white officers saw Bill—a black man with a gun in his hands—they killed him." Within months of the shooting, Bell's mother died of kidney disease and his father of a heart attack.

Devastated by the deaths, Bell decided to stay in school and become a doctor. After college, he moved South to begin four years of study at the predominantly black Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Meager finances often limited his daily diet to a can of ravioli, tomato soup made from ketchup and water, and Maalox to stifle his hunger. Finally, armed with a medical degree in 1971, he began serving four years as a psychiatrist with the U.S. Navy Reserves before moving back to Chicago to set up his practice.

Bell has worked with the Community Mental Health Council since 1975, seeing about 30 patients a day while also working once a week as an emergency room doctor at nearby Jackson Park Hospital. He devours psychiatric texts, speaks with pride about the 75 scientific papers he has published—and spends his spare time reading comic books and trashy novels. "I have a collection of vintage Marvel Comics," Bell says. "I liked them because they had words—like tryst and cacophony—that would send you to the dictionary. When I was a Navy psychiatrist, I suggested that we provide Marvel Comics for some of our recruits. Some youngsters who will never read The Mayor of Casterbridge can improve vocabulary skills by reading comics."

A fifth-degree black belt in karate, Bell also speaks highly of the martial-arts disciplines, maintaining that "they involve the mind as well as the body and are essentially nonviolent."

Married for three years, Bell shares a three-bedroom condo in Chicago's Hyde Park with his wife, Dora Dixie, 35, a family-practice physician, and her two teenage daughters by a previous marriage. The couple met while she was in medical school and studying transcultural psychiatry at Bell's clinic. "It was love at first sight," she says. "He had a mission to help his people. I'll take the blame; I proposed."

Bell speaks wistfully of "moving to a rural area and getting a job as a prison psychiatrist, teaching martial arts and letting my wife support me." For now, though, his crusade to break the cycle of black violence will continue, as will his attempts to repair the psychic damage it causes. "Once a piece of china is cracked, it will never be the same again," he says. "However, you can glue it back together and keep it in service. Many of the people who come to see us have been broken by the violence that is so common in the black community. But we can help them rebuild their lives."

From Our Partners