Murder and segregation: till death do they part

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy at a news conference January 31. They announced that they were reassigning 200 officers to patrol because of a rising murder rate.
  • Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy at a news conference January 31. They announced that they were reassigning 200 officers to patrol because of a rising murder rate.
The city's stunning homicide rate last year has stretched into 2013. The 42 homicides last month were the most for a January in Chicago since 2002.

The White House announced today that Michelle Obama will attend Saturday's funeral service for one of January's victims—Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old who was shot to death nine days ago in a park not far from the Obamas' home. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, also will attend the service.

Pendleton was slain in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, Kenwood, and that's unusual. But like most of the other victims, she was young and African-American. "I know how the killings have harmed so many families in Chicago," education secretary Duncan told the Sun-Times's Rick Telander earlier this week. "And now it's gone on so long . . . How is this possible in a civilized nation?"

"The president, the vice-president, the attorney general, all of us are going to put it on the line" to address the problem, he went on. "We have to help Chicago. We have to help the country."

But don't expect them to solve it, or come anywhere close. Presidents and education secretaries, mayors and police chiefs have come and gone, and black kids here have continued to kill and be killed, decade after decade, mostly in the same neighborhoods. It would take enormous resolve and courage to address the problem at its core.

In 1973, a then-record 864 people were slain in Chicago. The following June, an analysis of the 1973 homicide data by the Chicago Reporter showed that black Chicagoans were murdered at six times the rate of whites, and almost always by other blacks. The slayings were clustered in a handful of community areas, the magazine reported—among them East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin on the west side, and South Shore, Grand Boulevard, and Englewood on the south side.

These neighborhoods were overwhelmingly poor and black. Those two characteristics were of course related: the segregation that white Chicagoans had for decades imposed on black Chicagoans had concentrated the poverty in these communities, harvesting a host of social problems, among them rampant violence.

Conservatives called for legislators and courts to get tougher on crime. Liberals called for more spending on the poor. A few sociologists said segregation was the chief culprit and had to be eradicated. But no elected officials were willing to take on something so complicated and politically perilous.

So we did get tougher on crime—and today, we have our overcrowded prisons to show for it. We spent more on the poor. And now those neighborhoods that the Chicago Reporter pointed to 39 years ago are still predominantly poor and black, and still home to frequent murders.

Nationally, African-Americans are dying of homicide at six times the rate of whites, and committing homicide at seven times the white rate, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Why this is happening is hardly a secret. But researchers from the University of Alabama thoroughly reviewed the evidence on the subject and outlined some of the factors in November, in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.

High rates of homicide tend to occur in "disadvantaged, racially isolated communities"—the kind of neighborhoods that African-Americans are far more likely to live in than are whites, the authors noted. In the 1970s and 80s, these neighborhoods grew even poorer as blue-collar jobs began disappearing in the U.S. As those jobs vanished, the nation's homicide rate climbed. Economic conditions improved in the early 90s, but not enough to "undo racial isolation nor the extreme poverty of many black communities."

Segregation and concentrated poverty "provide fertile ground for development of hopelessness, frustration, and anger," the authors wrote. In such neighborhoods "a set of alternative cultural values and conduct norms has developed that does not stigmatize violence and substance abuse."

The authors' chief remedy? "Reduce racial segregation and the structural disadvantages characteristic of black communities."

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama will undoubtedly say that violence has claimed too many young lives. He'll talk about the need for new gun laws. And he'll mention segregation about as many times as he did in his first four years.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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