The speech Obama should give in Chicago

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President Obama speaking in Decatur, Georgia Thursday.
  • AP Photo/John Bazemore
  • President Obama speaking in Decatur, Georgia, Thursday
Tomorrow afternoon, President Obama will address students, parents, community members, and public officials in the gymnasium of Hyde Park Academy. He'll discuss "strengthening the economy for the middle class and those striving to get there," the White House says. He's also expected to talk about Chicago's gun violence. Here's what I wish he'd say.

Two months ago, I had the somber duty of addressing the nation after the shootings at Sandy Hook. On that occasion, I said that we'd been through this kind of tragedy too often. We have to come together, I said, and do what needs to be done, regardless of the politics, to prevent more tragedies like this.

Last Saturday, Michelle was here in Chicago, attending a funeral service for Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old who was slain not far from where we are right now. Hadiya was standing in a park with friends when someone ran up and started shooting. In an instant, another precious life was lost. Hadiya was one of 42 people killed in Chicago in January. Many of them were young.

And so I say again: We must act.

But I'm going to be frank. For political reasons, it's sometimes helpful to tie together tragedies such as the one in Sandy Hook and the killings in Chicago. I did that Tuesday in my State of the Union speech. But these calamities are not the same. For one thing, the killings in Chicago are ongoing. They are a chronic tragedy.

The shooting in Sandy Hook was especially terrifying because it was random. That's what makes an entire nation fearful—the sense that it could happen anywhere.

The killings in Chicago are not unpredictable. Year in and year out, decade upon decade, several hundred Chicagoans are slain—most of them only in certain parts of town.

And whereas anyone, regardless of color, could be the victim of a mass shooting like the one in Sandy Hook, homicide is not color-blind in Chicago. Overwhelmingly, the victims are black or brown. As are the perpetrators.

This is a different kind of malady, and it requires different medicine.

To be more precise, homicide itself is not the malady. Lethal violence in Chicago—and in Detroit, and Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and Baltimore—is a symptom of something deeper, of something even more important for us to address.

And to address it, we have to think about our history.

Now, there are certain parts of our history we love to talk about: the spirit of the pilgrims; the wisdom of the founding fathers; the bravery of the soldiers at Valley Forge. We say that their enterprise and resolve is in our DNA. And it's true.

But there are other parts of our history we'd just as soon not discuss—such as the fact that this nation's great wealth was built on the backs of slaves. That, too, is in our DNA.

I did talk about this once, during my first campaign, in my speech on a more perfect union. I said then that while we did not need to recite the entire history of this country's racial injustice, we did need to remind ourselves that so many of our racial disparities today could be directly traced to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and jim crow.

I said that segregated schools were and are inferior; that we still hadn't fixed them, a half century after Brown v. Board of Education; and that the inferior education they provided helped explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students. I said this in 2008, and now, five years later, unfortunately I can say it again.

I said that discrimination against blacks prevented many of them from owning property or starting businesses, or joining unions, or being hired by police and fire departments. This meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to their children and grandchildren. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

I said that the lack of economic opportunity for black men, and the shame and frustration that come from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families—which, along with the lack of basic services in urban black neighborhoods, helped create a cycle of violence, blight, and neglect that still haunts us.

I said that while some managed to beat the odds and claw their way to a piece of the American dream, there were many who didn't make it—who were defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. And that this legacy of defeat has been passed on to children and grandchildren—to the young men and increasingly young women whom we see on street corners or who are languishing in our prisons, without hope for the future.

I didn't mention the special role played by residential segregation. But it's been a pivotal role, so I'll talk about it now.

When blacks came north to Chicago and many other cities, they were relegated to certain neighborhoods. Members of ethnic and racial groups often cluster when they arrive in a city. But after a decade or two, they begin to assimilate—and we are a stronger and more vibrant nation because of it.

But blacks weren't allowed to assimilate. When they attempted to move into other neighborhoods, they were met with bricks and bottles and sometimes dynamite. Rather than fight these crimes, government abetted them. Chicago and other cities went so far as to establish restrictive covenants that forbade white homeowners from renting or selling to blacks. Public housing projects were built mainly within black neighborhoods. Urban renewal became "negro removal," with federal money spent to insulate white hospitals and universities—like the University of Chicago right here in Hyde Park—from blacks. So when it comes to segregation: yes, we built it.

Now, blacks weren't rich when they arrived here from the south. And the discrimination I spoke about earlier made them poorer. Segregation concentrated that poverty. It made poverty far more intense than the kind whites usually experience. It's not easy to escape poverty. It's especially hard when so many others up and down your street are also poor. Where are the role models for children? How can they glimpse a better life to work toward?

Today, we know that when poverty is concentrated in a neighborhood, it leads to greater problems than when poverty is isolated: more joblessness, more single-parent families, more school dropouts, more drug addictions, greater health problems. And more violence and crime.

Concentrated poverty is the illness we need to treat.

We often like to pretend that being poor and committing crimes are choices freely made. That they're mainly matters of personal responsibility. That children growing up in the midst of poverty can just shake it off and move on. We use the few who somehow manage to overcome as examples to indict the many who don't.

And I must acknowledge that I myself at times have talked about the poor this way. It's a popular sentiment, one that will never hurt someone politically. It's popular because it points the finger away from most people.

But we ought to focus more on our collective responsibility. Only money and power can undo the longstanding patterns that have concentrated poverty in certain neighborhoods. And the residents of those neighborhoods have neither money nor power.

So how do we treat this illness?

Many have said it is incurable, that "the poor will always be with us." One of my predecessors in the Oval Office declared that we fought a war against poverty, and poverty won.

But it isn't true. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, in his State of the Union address, and the programs he initiated—Head Start, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid—did much to alleviate and reduce poverty.

We withdrew, however, long before the war was won. And while we also passed important civil rights laws in the 1960s, we pulled up short when it came to residential segregation. A fair housing law was supposed to target that, but the version we passed in 1968 was watered down—and our feeble attempts to enforce it betrayed our unwillingness to address segregation. For this and other reasons, Chicago and many other big northern cities remain deeply racially segregated.

To address concentrated poverty today, we must proceed on two fronts. First, we must spend much more on programs that we know help the residents of such neighborhoods—on prenatal care, parenting programs, early childhood education, schools, job training. I have already advocated for such spending, to create ladders of opportunity for the poor, but my proposals have been too modest.

And before today, I have been silent about the second front, which is combating our persistent segregation. We cannot only pour money into poor neighborhoods. We cannot keep trying to simply "gild the ghetto." We must recognize that ladders of opportunity will be easier to grasp in neighborhoods that aren't desperately poor. We need to fight poverty where it is, but at the same time, we must work to deconcentrate it.

I'm not talking about "forced integration." No one will be obligated to move anywhere. But communities should not be allowed to accept federal money without providing housing that is affordable to all, so that more of those who do want to escape concentrated poverty and try a life elsewhere will have the chance.

This means, in part, a far more aggressive enforcement of our fair housing laws. In the 45 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed, all administrations have been negligent in this regard—including mine, I regretfully admit. We're going to change that now.

On the local level, mayors must work together to encourage racial and economic integration throughout our metropolitan areas. Suburbs benefit from vibrant central cities—central cities that are prospering attract employers to the whole area. Suburbs should do more to share the job of caring for those in the region who are struggling; that task should not fall solely on the shoulders of the central city and a few inner-ring suburbs.

We also must do far more to desegregate our schools. Here in Cook County, the public school enrollment is nearly equal thirds white, black, and Hispanic. But the white kids are in suburban and private schools, and most of the minority kids are in the Chicago Public Schools. The vast majority of children in Chicago's public schools are low-income. It's clear that kids whose schools are overwhelmingly low-income get inferior educations compared to kids in more economically diverse schools. No amount of Race to the Top accountability measures will compensate for that. We have supported the growth in charter schools to give parents more choice. But one choice most of these schools do not provide is an integrated education. We need to instead support regional magnet schools that make integration a priority.

Many of you know that when I was a community organizer in the 1980s, I worked in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on Chicago's far-south side. It's in a small community area called Riverdale. Riverdale then was almost entirely black and deeply poor. Violence was common.

Today, Riverdale is Chicago's poorest community. Sixty percent of its residents are poor, and another 21 percent are near poor. Thirty-six percent of the poor in Riverdale are living in deep poverty—below half the poverty line. And Riverdale's homicide rate is high.

We must not continue to ignore these connections, and we must work to break them.

I'd like to say, as I often do, "We can make this happen," or, "We can fix this." I know we can—but I really don't know if we will. Do we have the determination? Do we have the compassion? Segregation makes it so easy for us to look the other way.

We must at least begin to raise our voices about this. The people suffering in these distressed neighborhoods deserve our honesty. They deserve our honesty. They deserve our simple honesty.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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