by Steve Bogira
The chart above illustrates the relationship between concentrated poverty and homicide. I culled figures from a data set published earlier this month by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The chart shows the five poorest, and five least-poor, community areas in the city (based on the percentage of households below the poverty line), and their homicide rates from 2004 through 2008. Because concentrated poverty in Chicago is inextricably linked to being African-American, I've also included the percentage of African-Americans in these community areas, calculated from 2005-2009 Census Bureau estimates.
If the homicide rates in the poor black areas were twice the rates in the better-off white areas, that would be significant. The differences above, averaging about 13 to one, are staggering. This is what apartheid looks like.
Let's remember how things got this way, in Chicago and a host of other northern cities. Policies throughout the first seven decades of the 20th Century—some governmental, some commercial—hemmed blacks in geographically. So did the bombing and burning of the homes of blacks who tried moving into white neighborhoods, and the shooting and stoning of these intruders. Racial segregation combined perfectly with racial discrimination in hiring and schooling to create vast areas of concentrated poverty—most notably in housing projects, but in other black neighborhoods as well. In areas of concentrated poverty, children are far more likely to grow up with one parent or no parent, neglected and abused, amid alcoholism and drug addiction. If you want children to become violent in their teens and early 20s, these are the right ingredients. Merely having more police around to catch them in the act is like throwing thimblefuls of water on a house fire.
The only thing more reprehensible than homicide rates so grossly disparate, from poor black neighborhoods to middle-class white neighborhoods, is that we've tolerated them for decades. It was this way long before the 2004-2008 period the rates are based on—and the situation hasn't changed since 2008. In today's Crain's Chicago Business, Arthur J. Lurigio, professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University, points out that in 2010, 52 percent of murders in Chicago occurred in just six of the city's 25 police districts—areas "plagued by intergenerational poverty, gang infestation, single-parent households, social disorder, and economic blight." These precursors to violence, Lurigio writes, "can be addressed most effectively through the social, political, and economic revitalization of distressed neighborhoods."
"Revitalization" is part of the solution—but it'll never work without concurrent efforts to deconcentrate the poverty. There must be a far harder push for mixed-income housing throughout the metropolitan area, and more support for those who want to live in it. This requires federal leadership that's been lacking. It also requires the cooperation of mayors across the region—but only one mayor has the clout to lead the effort. He should remind his colleagues that the region won't thrive unless its central city does.
That's what should happen, but it probably won't, because of another feature of segregation that makes it so tenacious. The people with the power to spur Mayor Emanuel to act have little reason to do so when the disease of poverty is quarantined. If you live in Edison Park, Garfield Park is not your problem. The homicide rate in Fuller Park may briefly dismay us, but then we move on to the next thing. We hate hearing about the murders, but it's not us, our neighbors, our family members, or our friends who are getting the heartbreaking middle-of-the-night calls.