After much clamor and many entreaties, finally President Obama has decided to come to Chicago to address the rampant gun violence plaguing communities of color. Perhaps in a newfound fervor stemming from the security of a second term, Obama seems to have become more intentional and aggressive about addressing the issues that have a greater resonance with impoverished communities of color. Of course, to suggest that it’s “about time” is an understatement, but it’s nevertheless comforting that national attention is crystallizing around Chicago’s gun violence. Especially since Obama’s visit to Newtown after the tragic shooting sent a powerful message to marginalized groups about whose lives were really valued in the nation. Had it not been for the recent senseless death of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15 year-old Chicago youth killed just a mile away from Obama’s house, public attention might still have failed to center around Chicago’s violence.
However, I wish to address the problematic nature in which both the media and the public consciousness have oriented Hadiya’s murder. Often in an attempt to underscore the tragic nature of the event, they are quick to assert how Hadiya was an honor student, heavily involved in extracurricular activities, and for all intents and purposes, as innocent as innocent could be. This sentiment is reflected in Obama’s reference to Hadiya in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, wherein the tragedy seems to be not only in Hadiya’s death as a black female youth of color, but as a good youth of color. He stated:
One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Of course, Hadiya’s achievements should be honored, but the implicit message seems to be that her death was doubly tragic because she fit conventional notions of achievement and respectability. This is of course politics as usual, since the deaths of criminalized and or gang-affiliated youth could not have garnered public sympathy. (One might recall the media’s preoccupation with finding dirt on Trayvon Martin.) This is saddening, since many of the youth that suffer from violence in Chicago might not be honor students, nor college-bound, nor surrounded with loving familial relationships. Though they might be participants in the violence, they too are the results of social circumstance, yet their lives will never be esteemed in the same way as Hadiya’s.
Ending the violence among youth in Chicago will take a multi-faceted approach that will necessitate effort being made at local, state, and federal levels. Policy affecting every facet of the city from the schools to employment will all work to chisel away at the seemingly immovable stone block of poverty and violence afflicting the city. But what it is perhaps needed most is an understanding that every youth’s life should be of importance. We cannot dichotomize the lives of youth into that torrid binary of the deserving and undeserving. But rather, we must actively work for the sake of all Black youth, on both sides of the bullet. Hadiya and her family deserve every bit of attention and concern they are receiving. But we must work to extend this compassion to the lives of every youth affected by the cycle of violence. If we continue to privilege the lives of certain youths above others, we are guilty of acquiescing to the same forces that compel Obama to visit Newtown, Connecticut long before visiting Chicago.