What Killed Robert Peace?
Examining the short and tragic life of a brilliant young man.
What Killed Robert Peace?
The story of Robert DeShaun Peace should have been one of success. Yet in May 2011, Robert is found dead by gunshot wound, surrounded by cash, twenty-five pounds of marijuana, and the paraphernalia of drug-production—reinforcing the trope of the African American male caught in drug and gang violence.
How did this happen?
In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Robert’s Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs attempts to answer this question by piecing together the story of Robert through memories, observation, and documentation. As the title of the novel indicates, Robert’s death is a tragedy, imbued with the bizarre. His life is an enigma—the mind that he employs to study molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale is the same one that he uses to create Sour Diesel, his designer strain of marijuana.
To answer the question of what led to Robert Peace’s demise, I propose that we must examine the poverty in which Robert grows up and how it shapes his decisions. It is significant to note that Robert is a native to Newark, NJ, where he and over 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Robert is also raised in a single parent household by his mother after his father, Skeet, is imprisoned for double homicide. Undeniably, the events surrounding Robert’s life result in poverty at the individual and structural levels. However, I think that these two theories of poverty—individual and structural—are not enough to capture all that Robert experiences. To create a more comprehensive analysis, we must also examine a third type of poverty: relational poverty. This relational poverty is caused by the sins that Robert commits as well as the sins that are committed against him.
There are two major explanations for why poverty persists in America. The first view is that individuals are largely responsible for their own destiny, choosing in effect to become poor. Poverty is linked to a person’s characteristics, choices, and competency (e.g. laziness, lack of effort, and low ability). Related to the individual phenomenon is the theory of “subcultures of poverty”, which argues that poverty is perpetuated through the socializations of certain behaviors and attitudes. The term first appeared in anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ ethnography, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959). In his study, Lewis contends that systemic poverty has led to the formation of an autonomous subculture as children are socialized into feelings “of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging.” These attitudes trap and perpetuate poverty into an inescapable cycle, and poverty is something that individuals are stuck in.
In some ways, Robert certainly did perpetuate his state of poverty through his decisions. Although Jackie tries to remove Robert from his old neighborhood by moving and sending him to a private school, Robert chooses to return and befriend many of his father’s friends. They introduce him to smoking and drinking at the age of 13, and he chooses to follow in their lifestyle. Ultimately, Robert makes the poor decision to produce Sour Diesel that costs him his life.
However, a purely individualistic reading of Robert’s life would disregard the fact that Robert is anything but lazy, incompetent, and powerless. Robert is remembered as a natural leader, a brilliant student and a loyal son and friend. His mother challenges him to be ambitious, and he understands the cost of her sacrifices, which drives him to be studious, focused, and hardworking. He is a successful water polo player, graduates at the top of his private high school, and is accepted into Yale University. After hearing Robert’s speech at a high school banquet, a wealthy alumnus is so impressed with Robert that he gives Robert a blank check for his college tuition. He is a straight-A student at Yale, and rationally, he should have been able to make good decisions.
Perhaps Robert didn’t always have the choice to leave poverty. This leads to the second major explanation, which opposes the individualistic phenomenon by presenting poverty as a result of “failings at the structural level.” Advocates of this theory argue that most of poverty can be traced back to structural features that are deeply embedded into the economy, the legal system, and/or interrelated institutional environments. For instance, the U.S. labor market is unable to provide enough decent paying jobs for all families to avoid poverty or near poverty. This leads to the formations of socioeconomic classes, which are reproduced over time as people in each level use their resources to protect their advantages and pass them on to their children. Socioeconomic classes also cross with the segregation of ethnic groups, which inadvertently causes discrimination by limiting the networks and opportunities of certain groups. These and other examples show that structural poverty affects the range of options available to people, and such variations produce predictable rates of events. Oftentimes, we see that the people in lower social classes have fewer choices in solving personal problems.
Structural poverty is built into Robert’s life, starting with the fact that he was born into poverty. Robert’s father, Skeet, is imprisoned without receiving a fair trial, causing Robert to grow up fatherless. Since Skeet was also a small-time drug hustler, Robert is immersed in a social network and structure inundated with drugs. As the book draws to an end, Hobbs and others seem to realize that Robert did not choose this way of life. Upon hearing the news of Robert’s death, Charles Cawley, the benefactor of Robert’s Yale education, was
surprised by how unsurprised he was by the news of Rob’s passing. . . . He thought of what he had given the boy, not in terms of money but rather in choices, and he wondered how a person as bright and deserving as Rob Peace could have made the choices, beginning on the night of that banquet, that had resulted in this. And he figured that the choices hadn’t necessarily begun on that night. Most likely, they’d begun on the night he was born, and not all of them had been his to make.
Indeed, Robert Peace is not completely at fault for the turn of events in his life.
Nonetheless, I find this conclusion, as well as the abrupt end of Hobbs’ novel, unsettling. Using the structural theory of poverty as an explanation for Robert’s life conveys a sense of inevitably: that regardless of Jackie’s sacrifices, regardless of his education at Yale, regardless of what happened, Robert would have died in that basement. Such a conclusion does not explain why I continue to feel that the death of Robert Peace is an incredible loss. I am not alone in this sentiment—one glance at the book reviews will show that most readers feel that given his characteristics and opportunities, Robert should have been an exception to the rule.
To me, this sorrow indicates something that the individual and structural theories cannot capture. Firstly, it acknowledges that Robert had a chance at a better life that was attainable despite the limitations he was born into. It also recognizes that Robert was responsible for his decisions, but he was also the victim of other’s decisions. I believe that this sorrow is better explained by examining the relational poverty in Robert’s life.
Relational poverty can be defined in many ways, but I will define it as this: a person is relationally poor if his relationship to himself and/or others is detrimental to his mental and emotional wellbeing. As a Christian, I believe that relationships become detrimental because of sin. In Robert’s life, he experiences the consequences of sins committed before he was born—from the oppression of African Americans to his own father’s involvement with dealing marijuana. The consequences of these sins are many: Robert is estranged from his father, whom he ardently believes was innocent regardless of the many loose and unexplainable ends in the case. He forges friendships with his father’s friends, but they betray his sincere trust. He knows that he can go on to graduate school, but he is reluctant to leave his Newark friends, the only family he has. He is resentful of the white man’s establishment, yet he cannot see how his own close-mindedness is a barrier to his advancement.
As a result, Robert operates out of the force of anger and desperation. The desperation drives him to succeed in school because, in addition to his natural curiosity, he does not want to disappoint his mother and wants to free his father. The anger causes him to smoke marijuana every day because it helps him forget his anger and stay connected with his Newark roots. Both activities are outlets by which Robert attempts to gain control and define his place in the world. However, in doing so, Robert also faces the ramifications of his own sins— he chooses to spurn the advice of his mother, and he chooses to neglect his academic success to pursue his drug exploits.
Combined with the structural and individual aspects of poverty, we see that Robert’s actions are not contradictory but indicators of a defeated spirit. This explains in part why his intellect and hard work could not change the trajectory of his life. He understands the immensity of his pedigree; in fact, he justifies many of his decisions with “I went to Yale; I know what I’m doing.” What Robert cannot see is that his actions and thoughts are often motivated by “raw emotion”, which makes him susceptible to the same sins time and time again.
Thus, the antidotes to relational poverty go beyond the fixes of individual and structural poverty. Unfortunately, we cannot turn back the clock so that Robert never experiences the loss of his father and all of the subsequent events. Neither can we guarantee that rewriting the past would spare Robert of the hurt inflicted on him and by him. The issue of sin saturates every aspect of poverty, and Robert Peace was both a victim and perpetrator of sin. Therefore, the only way to truly remove the poverty in Robert’s life is to remove the sin.
Robert Peace’s short and tragic life comes as a shock because many of us assume that poverty can be eradicated with more money, more intellect, more opportunities, and so on. A closer look at Robert’s life shows that this is not the case, and this an unnerving realization. Maybe we need to begin with recognizing that our societal sins are perpetuated by our individual sins. And then we will see that we are all in and part of the poverty that killed Robert Peace.
1 E. Philips Davis and Miguel Sanchez- Martinez, “Economic Theories of Poverty,” Joseph Rowntree Foundation, June 4, 2015, https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/economic-theories-poverty.
2 Mark R. Rank, Hong-Sik Yoon, and Thomas A. Hirschl, “American Poverty as a Structural Failing: Evidence and Arguments,” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 30 (2003): 4, http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=2936&context=jssw.
3 Ibid, 9-15.
4 Leornard Beeghley, “Individual and Structural Explanations of Poverty,” Population Research and Policy Review: Vol. 7, No. 3 (1988): 207, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40229945.
5 Ibid, 214 – For example, people’s networks of relationships can determine their work opportunities. Most people find out about jobs informally, through word of mouth, rather than formally from agencies, ads, and other forms of advertisement. Thus, almost everyone relies on their friends, relatives, acquaintances, and extended social networks to find out about jobs. Since different ethnic groups tend to participate in different social networks, segregation solidifies the opportunities available to each group. Without the intent of discrimination, the process of people helping others find jobs causes occupational segregation, income inequality, and poverty.
6 Ibid, 205.
8 Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (New York: Scribner, 2015), 396.
Esther is a senior in the ILR School. Her intellectual interests include economic development, labor law, and faithful vocation. When she is not (over)thinking, she enjoys going on adventures, trying new recipes, and asking people hard questions.Tags: academia, Charles Cawley, college, education, friendship, Jeff Hobbs, Oscar Lewis, poverty, race, racism, Robert Peace, sin, university, Yale University