Why does murder matter more in Colorado than Chicago?

The Colorado movie theater shooting was tragic and has rightly received significant media focus.  Twelve lives lost is twelve too many.  Given the amount of media attention devoted to this tragedy it might seem that murder on this scale is unique but, as Murtaza Hussain in Salon points out, it’s not.

[As] heinous as the Colorado shooting was, viewed on its own it is worth noting that in terms of scale it pales in comparison to the near-industrial-level killing that regularly ravages much of inner-city America; in particular the city of Chicago, which has been grappling with years of protracted violence that has produced numbers of dead and wounded more appropriate to an active war zone than a major American city.

Just how bad is the murder rate in Chicago?  Hussain points out that the 5,000 Chicago residents who have been killed by gun violence since 2001 is “more than double the number of American soldiers who have been killed fighting in Afghanistan during the same period.”  In the article Hussain wonders why it is that attention and sympathy is disproportionally directed towards the theater tragedy while Chicago, according to the local NBC news affiliate, has the highest murder rate among similar global cities.

Photo by Daniel Schwen (cc).

Why does the murder rate in Chicago receive so little press?

In the Reader Steve Bogira makes some startling observations about poverty and homicide in Chicago.  Using data from the Department of Public Health, Bogira lists Chicago’s five poorest neighborhoods along with the five least poor and the disparity is staggering: 13 murders in the poorest neighborhoods for every 1 murder in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.

So is poverty the cause of the media’s inattention to the epidemic of violence in Chicago?  Perhaps in part.  Without knowing for sure, it seems likely that the victims of the theater shooting represented a higher – or, at least, more diverse – socioeconomic range than do the victims of most Chicago murders.

“This is what apartheid looks like.”

But poverty isn’t the whole story. Bogira points out an additional difference between  the poorest and least poor neighborhoods.  Of the poorest neighborhoods each is more than 90% African American.  Of the five most affluent neighborhoods Mount Greenwood has the highest percentage of African Americans at a mere 5%.  Bogira puts it plainly: “This is what apartheid looks like.”

So while poverty plays a role in our apathy towards Chicago’s violence it is a role that is intimately tied to race.  Murder in this city matters less than murder in Colorado because those who suffer and die here are people of color.

This may sound like an ugly stretch to some but consider Michael Skolnik’s thought experiment.  In an article for the Global Grind he imagines this headline: “53 WHITE People Shot! 10 Dead! One Weekend!”  Everything about the headline is true, pulled from a weekend in May, except the race of the victims.  But had they been white Skolnik knows what our collective responsive to that headline would have looked like.

By the time you read it, the Governor would have already deployed the National Guard. The President would have already made a statement. A curfew would have been set for anyone under 18. Schools would have been closed. Check points would have been set up around the city. Every active police officer would be called into work. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News would all break into their regular scheduled programming for a special report.

It’s right to mourn those murdered in Colorado.  Lives were violently cut short and these deaths ought to provoke both our grief and criticism about how such a thing could happen.  But until we care as deeply for those deemed less valuable by the media and others our grief and criticism may say more about us than we’d like to admit.

Winter in Chicago

These predictions from AccuWeather about this coming winter will evoke different feelings depending on where you live and your disposition towards cold weather.  Those of us in Chicago have this to look forward to:

Chicago, which endured a monster blizzard last winter, could be one of the hardest-hit cities in terms of both snow and cold in the winter ahead.  AccuWeather.com Long-Range Meteorologist Josh Nagelberg even went so far as to say, “People in Chicago are going to want to move after this winter.”

AccuWeather.com Winter 2011-2012 Forecast

The 1919 Chicago Race Riot

On Sunday we began a new sermon series, one I’ve been thinking about for a while.  I’ve called this collection of four sermons The Beloved Community, borrowing a phrase made popular by Dr. King.  Beginning on Sunday our church started looking at the beauty of God-intentioned diversity and how quickly it turns towards disparity and division.  In the coming weeks we’ll look at the spiritual realities behind prejudice and racism, the insidious nature of white privilege, and the many practical and seemingly inconsequential steps we can take towards the beloved community.

On Sunday I preached from Genesis and Revelation to show how humanity’s diversity is a reflection of God’s original intention and will remain within God’s restored creation.  Yet we live in a city where it is hard to see beyond disparity and division; Chicago was recently named the third most segregated city in the country.  Roots of racism run deep in this city, perhaps most strongly exemplified by the 1919 Chicago Race Riot which began less than a mile from where our church meets to worship.

The riots began in July after Eugene Williams, a young, African American man who was swimming near 29th Street Beach, was pelted with rocks by a white man and drowned.  Two weeks later – after 53 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and many African Americans made homeless by arson – Chicago’s worst racial violence to date came to an end.  In October Walter White, the assistant executive secretary for the NAACP, showed how the riots were a result of many factors, especially the circumstances under which many African Americans were forced to live in Chicago.

For a long period prior to the riots, organized gangs of white hoodlums had been perpetrating crimes against Negroes for which no arrests had been made. These gangs in many instances masqueraded under the name of “Athletic and Social Clubs” and later direct connection was shown between them and incendiary fires started during the riots. Colored men, women and children had been beaten in the parks, most of them in Jackson and Lincoln Parks. In one case a young colored girl was beaten and thrown into a lagoon. In other cases Negroes were beaten so severely that they had to be taken to hospitals. All of these cases had caused many colored people to wonder if they could expect any protection whatever from the authorities.

Being aware of these ugly sides of Chicago’s history is important for a multi-ethnic church like ours.  First, we must be aware of how pervasive and insidious segregation and division has been within our city.  Ongoing racial and class disparities are rooted in history and our mission and ministry as a church must take seriously the Chicago that was even as we pray and work for something different.  Second, as we become more aware of the scope of injustice in our city we are compelled to turn from our own adrenaline and ideas to the God whose presence has sustained Chicago despite ourselves.

It can seem counter-intuitive, but acknowledging how the sins of history continue to affect us is often a first step towards a more hopeful and just future.

Flowers and Trash

One of the things our new church- New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville– has said repeatedly is that we will exist for the good of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  In other words, our times of gathering together for worship are meant to align our minds and heart towards God so that we may be sent to participate in God’s mission in our city.

So it was no small thing for us to spend last Saturday, less than two months since our weekly services began, picking up litter and planting flowers at Drake Elementary where we hold our Sunday services.

While we got a lot of flowers planted and litter picked up, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have a lot of fun as well.  Because we’re a new church it’s helpful to have chances like this to spend time getting to know each other, even while we take very small step in mission together.