Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns, though, Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. And many say that is Chicago’s real violence issue.
“Where do gangs come from? They tend to take root in the very same neighborhoods that drive these other problems,” said Robert J. Sampson, a professor at Harvard and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” “You can’t divorce the gang problem from the problem of deep concentrations of poverty.”
“What predicts violent crime rates is concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, and what determines concentrated poverty is high levels of black segregation combined with high levels of black poverty,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.
In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation. While many areas have few or no killings, the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.
The linkage of segregation, poverty and crime exists in New York City as well. Homicides occur at higher rates in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem, and many other neighborhoods are virtually free of killings.
But segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than one percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.
Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”
“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”
Fifty years after King’s visit to Marquette Park, Chicago remains one of the country’s most racially segregated large cities. Redlining is long over, but its legacy is inscribed on the neighborhoods. Some of those areas are poorer than they were at the time of King’s marches. In Englewood, on the South Side, poverty has grown from twenty-seven per cent, in 1970, to forty-eight per cent today. In the past decade and a half, the city knocked down Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other poverty-stricken public high-rises, but studies have found that the effort has done little to advance integration by race or income. A 2014 study by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law documented frequent discrimination against those people who try to rent using subsidized vouchers from the Chicago Housing Authority. On the city’s Northwest Side, landlords refused to rent to them fifty-eight per cent of the time. Most of the residents resettled in heavily black, low-income census tracts. Those areas are distinguished by the sheer absence of economic life: few hardware stores, pharmacies, and restaurants, and virtually no banks.
For more than twenty years, Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, and a team of researchers have conducted a study of human development in Chicago neighborhoods. “The incarceration rate in the highest-ranked black community in Chicago is forty times higher than the incarceration rate in the highest-ranked white community,” he said. “You can’t even compare them.” Sampson’s team visited many cities—including New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans—before choosing Chicago. “If you want to trace across multiple dimensions the legacies of inequality, Chicago is a microcosm of all the things that are bearing down on cities,” Sampson said. His Chicago portrait, “Great American City,” challenges the argument that globalization and technology have flattened boundaries and details how the distance of a few blocks still determines the basic probabilities in life—the chances of hearing a tip on a job prospect, or receiving a first-time loan, or being hit by crossfire. Last year, four hundred and sixty-eight people were killed in Chicago, a higher total than in any other American city, and up thirteen per cent from the previous year. Most were killed in black neighborhoods, where homicide rates are thirteen times higher, on average, than in better-off white areas.
“If you don’t expect to live past twenty-two, then why would you delay gratification for something in the future that may never come?” Sampson said. “That, in turn, influences every big decision.” As early as preschool, the threat or the experience of violence can induce stress that distorts academic performance. The extent to which growing up in a poor black neighborhood in Chicago hampered verbal development was found to be the equivalent of “missing one year of schooling.” Nearly forty-seven per cent of all black men in Chicago between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are neither in school nor working—the highest percentage of any big city. (Nationwide, the figure is thirty-two per cent.)
-“Father Mike” in this week’s New Yorker, a profile about Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who I hold in high respect. The section above details the seemingly impossible situation that Father Mike and so many other Chicago pastors and community leaders have been up against for decades.
This morning NPR featured a story from Chicago about police becoming more cautious as a result of increased public scrutiny. The idea here is that post-Ferguson, when it has become common for police misconduct to be captured on video, police are less likely to get involved in situations that could turn ugly. Our mayor has recently advanced this same theory to explain the rise in gun violence our city is experiencing.
In other words, the reason certain communities are suffering increased violence is because those same communities are looking for ways to protect themselves from violence. This, as best I can tell, is the logic.
About halfway through the story a former Chicago police officer is interviewed. This officer remembers a time when community policing was a priority, when neighbors knew and respected their beat cop. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard similar things from neighbors and community leaders. But community policing programs are no longer a priority, ostensibly because they cost too much and our city is too broke. In place of officer-community relationships that were built over time, Chicago, like so many cities, now relies on big data to fight crime. Our mayor and police superintendent praise the ability of data to predict crime and stop it preemptively. Stop-and-frisk is viewed as a reasonable and even necessary tactic within the logic of big data, despite its inherently discriminatory nature.
Old-school community policing is never mentioned by our city leaders as a realistic response to violence despite the benefits to those who suffer the most from our city’s violence. Why? Because our city, like most of us, have believed the lies promised by technology. Technology, in the form of data-driven policing strategies, promises to save us money because software and a few number-crunchers are cheaper than employing trusted women and men to police specific neighborhoods. Technology has also promised to do the hard work of policing better with machines than can be done by people.
But these are lies and we’ve believed them because technology is our beloved idol. The data does save the city money, but the cost is passed on exponentially to the communities that are suffering violence. And data does allow the police department to operate efficiently on paper, but this efficiency is unjust and harmful to those who are sliced, diced, and generalized, to those whose experience of the data is not efficient but discriminatory.
It’s not surprising that the communities suffering violence are being blamed for this year’s increased shootings and murder. It’s not surprising but neither is it true. And only by worshipping at technology’s altar could we believe that those suffering our city’s violence can also be blamed for it.
It’s been a month since my last meditation on violence but a final item keeps turning over in my mind. Its a short passage from the Gospel of Matthew, a saying of Jesus remarkable for its surprising imagery and – for me, at least – inscrutability. John the Baptist’s disciples have come to double-check with Jesus that he is indeed the “one who is to come” or whether they should continue waiting for the Messiah. After reassuring them in his typical story-telling manner, Jesus turns to the surrounding crowd and begins to talk up his cousin John. And then, in Matthew 11:12, this: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” (There’s a parallel passage in Luke 16 which seems more straightforward, though the emphasis is different than in Matthew’s account.)
Matthew records Jesus beginning his ministry with the simple command, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven in near.” This kingdom is described in the following chapter when Jesus begins his famous sermon with the Beatitudes. In the kingdom of heaven it is the poor in spirt, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers who are blessed. Of course the world of oppressed Jewish peasants and conscripted Roman soldiers didn’t work that way any more than does ours. Those listening to Jesus’ teaching knew it was the powerful and the violent who appeared most happy, most fulfilled. In our time we pay special attention to the recent winners of the multi-million dollar lottery because we assume that such wealth brings with it the power necessary to achieve the good life. We don’t imagine that coming to possess such power will lead to our exacting violence on others (or ourselves). Rather, it must certainly protect us from the violence that has thus far hindered our happiness.
Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven in the Sermon on the Mount is stark in its opposition to the status quo. In this kingdom neither the power of Rome nor the winning lottery ticket nor any other access to power is given credence. None of these lead to life. The holder of power must protect it – for without it, what is left? And so, violence is invited, first as a last resort and then, over time, as the way things simply are. Camouflaged, it blends in and is almost impossible to detect or even feel the distaste one would hope to experience when confronted by violence.
Yet Jesus’ words arrest the chameleon characteristics of violence and we can begin to imagine a kingdom in which the will to power has ceased. There is a different sort of power at work here and it turns its citizens outward, vulnerably exposed toward one another yet without the fear. Murder, adultery, and revenge – each a violent grasp for power – are all subverted within this kingdom.
Which makes what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven being subject to violence and violent raiders even stranger. This is a peaceable kingdom, is it not? Yet there it is: even here, within God’s kingdom coming, there will be violence. Jesus words appear prophetic a few chapters later when John’s disciples again seek Jesus, this time to inform him that his cousin had recently been beheaded by king Herod.
How can this alternative kingdom of heaven, the place where we pray God’s perfect will would be known as in heaven itself, be subject to violence? It is so because Jesus, himself the King of the Kingdom he came proclaiming, was subject to violence. Like his cousin, Jesus’ body would be the casualty of powerful men’s violence. God doesn’t exempt God’s Self from the violence inflicted by and to his creatures. Jesus subjected himself to the world’s violence along with all of its evil sources as a lamb led to slaughter.
But there is something important in both Jesus’ teaching and in the way he died that help us imagine how we might live within the kingdom of heaven peaceably even as violence besieges it. Jesus’ teaching and crucifixion reveal that it is King and kingdom (and, but extension, citizens of the Kingdom) that are subject to violence. Yet, as Sermon on the Mount makes clear, such grasping for power is unknown within the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows the full force of violence without resorting to violence and as such exposes the final powerlessness of violence. His kingdom too will know the onslaught of violence without believing for a moment that the power it claims as ultimate is actually so. As in the Sermon on the Mount, citizens of this kingdom can know violence, can even be temporarily harmed by it, without ever being claimed by violence, without succumbing to its deadly narrative.
I think this is the last of these meditations on violence. After all of these words I can hint at a summary: Jesus was overcome by violence so that our violent selves wouldn’t be.
In reviewing these unscripted meditations on violence (1, 2, 3, and 4) I notice one theme especially: violence pervades and implicates us all. It is notable not for being exceptional but normal. So normal that we ignore all but the most grievous examples, examples that exist away from us except when they are done to us. We are so accustomed to violence that we can hardly imagine ourselves as violent.
This deceptive view of violence lets the individual off the hook while insidiously transferring the guilt of violence to the societally-accepted other. And unlike me – the one who is not perceived as violent – the other is a group, a people. This other-group allows we individuals to escape the stain of violence.
Each weekend in Chicago we are told how many people have been shot and how many have been killed. In these warmer months these statistics are particularly grim. The bulk of these shootings and murders take place on our side of the city or to the west, the vast swaths of the city inhabited in most cases by women and men and children whose skin is darker than mine and whose cultures developed in response to the supremacist tendencies of my own. It is these who are understood to be violent, not as individuals but as the other, the group who acts violently. It is a convenient if thoroughly wrongheaded way of understanding the terrible headlines on Monday morning; I’m allowed to feel sad (and, on a good day, sympathetic) without any guilt at all.
Reducing violence to the specific, willful action and transferring these actions to the other(s) is deceptive twice: I’m undeservedly relieved of a violent identity while entire groups are first removed from a history of violence suffered and then reduced to contextless, tragic moments.
As it often does, the most recent neighborhood education meeting I attend each month featured a representative from Chicago Public Schools. This man spoke for about twenty minutes and took a number of questions from the participants. It was a normal presentation aside from the subject matter: helping students cope with the upcoming school closings. A long, anxiety-producing process throughout the winter culminated in the announcement last month that 49 schools will be closed at the end of this academic calendar.
Displaced children and their families are now trying to understand their options and considering the consequences of their eventual decisions. How much farther will a child’s new school be from home? How welcomed will she be? What invisible lines now have to be crossed?
A few months back I attended a breakfast with other clergy from the South Side and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Dr. Byrd-Bennett is clearly an intelligent woman and very capable as the CEO; she said much during our breakfast that I appreciated. But there was this one thing… “Don’t forget,” she stated while discussing the upcoming school closings, “children are resilient!” Her point was simple: It’s unfortunate that we have to close these schools, but kids are tough and they will be just fine.
The representative at our neighborhood meeting said much the same thing even as he ran through a massive list of programs, initiatives, and strategies to help school children who are experiencing crisis. Crises like the school closings.
So which is it? Resilient or vulnerable and in need of systems and support during crisis?
Probably it’s both, though if we get clearer with our language we might be slower to talk about a young child’s resiliency. The more than 31,000 displaced students (8% of these are currently homeless) are experiencing the violence of the system in which they find themselves. Dr. Bryd-Bennett, Mayor Emmanuel, and the Chicago School Board would dispute it, but theirs are violent decisions. That they aren’t talked about as such only indicates the extent to which violence is normal, the currency of the powerful.
Of course, we can all sleep easier if we believe soothing truisms about the resiliency of the powerless.
So far, in these meditations on violence, I’ve not actually defined the word. We probably imagine a violent act to be one done intentionally, likely by a person with power who willfully injures or destroys one with less power. How much more specific can we be? Consider whether violence can ever be just. Is a destructive act against another technically violent if done in self-defense or at the command of a military superior? We Christians have our own histories to contend with when it comes to understanding the place of violence within our story: I recently heard a theologian differentiate between the terrible-seeming acts commanded by God in the Old Testament and actual violence; the latter, asserted the theologian, is something God never participates in. (Whether or not he’s correct isn’t the point. I mean simply to acknowledge the difficulty of this word, a difficulty that isn’t easily simplified by Christianity.)
Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto housing is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.
Context always matters, no more so than in the case of Mrs. King’s remarks. Less than three months earlier her husband, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. His was an especially violent death, captured in images and eye-witnesses accounts that still register in our national consciousness. Yet, when describing the toll of violence, Mrs. King pointed not to her husband’s spectacular and undeniably violent death but to the millions of accepted and overlooked acts that take place every day.
Making the shift toward Mrs. King’s view of violence leaves us with a dilemma far more significant than a murky definition: such a view implicates not a few violent actors but most of us, most of the time.