Four-hundred people were shot in Chicago within the span of 31 days. Ninety of them died. Multiple outlets, including The Washington Post and CNN, are calling August the deadliest month the city has experienced in two decades.
Some news reports implicated widespread gang violence within the city for the drastic uptick in crime, while others focused on the influx of firearms from neighboring states with looser gun laws. A new documentary from BBC, titled “Lost Streets Chicago,” hones in on the impact of the seemingly inescapable violence concentrated in minority neighborhoods, with residents describing them as tantamount to “third-world countries.”
But in framing these horrific murders as the source of Chicago’s misfortune, those reporting on the gun violence epidemic misdiagnosed the root cause. Rather, gun violence in Chicago is actually a symptom of a subtle yet far-reaching type of brutality: systemic racism.
The simple truth is that the lack of regard for black life in Chicago extends beyond homicides.
It is a truth that even Chicago police Superintendent’s Eddie Johnson would seem to agree with.
“Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things,” Johnson told The Chicago Tribune. “You show me a man that doesn’t have hope, I’ll show you one that’s willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it.”
But the hope, or rather the lack thereof, that Johnson refers to didn’t magically disappear from neighborhoods like Washington Park, Bronzeville and South Shore.
Whether it begins with the decades-long apathy towards countering the lead paint poisoning that inhibits brain development within Black children who live in impoverished neighborhoods, or rather with the federal government’s 1939 redlining project that denied Black Chicagoans access to capital in the first place is yet to be determined. But one thing is certain: it permeates almost every aspect of life for residents of Chicago’s south and west side neighborhoods.
While Chicago, like most major cities, has long been plagued by violence, CNN reports that Chicago’s homicide rate began spiraling out of control in 2014. But this didn’t occur in a vacuum—it manifested itself alongside cuts to education and other resources that helped ensure quality of life.
As lawmakers in the Illinois legislature continue to play politics with the state’s budget, hundreds of Chicago’s public schools have been forced to close their doors. But the wave of closures over the past three years has overwhelmingly affected schools in minority neighborhoods. As a result, more children have to trek longer to get to school, with many unable to avoid walking through gang territory on the way. Aside from the risk of getting caught in crossfire, this makes them open targets for gang recruitment.
The closures have been so disproportionately concentrated within Black and Latinx neighborhoods that the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division is currently investigating the city’s public school system on the basis of racial discrimination.
Schools that have been lucky enough to avoid closure are now dealing with a shortage of necessary resources–which includes staff. In just four years, the Chicago Public School system slashed the number of school librarians from 454 to just 160. The ramifications are particularly disturbing for students in lower-income neighborhoods, as librarians can be pivotal in encouraging youth literacy and knowledge accumulation outside of the classroom.
Without opportunities to engage in supplemental reading, the gap between children from advantaged backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds only widens.
But there are other institutionalized problems that contribute directly to Chicago’s rampant gun violence: many of those responsible for the shootings are still on the street.
Chicago’s murder clearance rate (a statistic concerning the number of solved or closed murder cases) is the lowest among major cities in the country for the 10th year in a row. This might have something to do with the fact that the city’s detective unit has been reduced by 26 percent in the last eight years.
With fewer resources dedicated to either preventing crime altogether or making sure that those who have killed no longer have the opportunity to kill again, many Chicagoans no longer trust the state to keep them safe. As “Lost Streets Chicago” shows, some are now opting to carry firearms for their own protection. But, of course, this “shoot or be shot” mentality has only led to more bloodshed.
Very little, if any, of this context makes its way into reporting on Chicago’s gun violence. Instead, the epidemic is painted as one without an origin. The willful ignorance at play offers an inadequate perception of the problem, which could be remarkably detrimental to how we think of effective solutions.
Yes, Chicago’s neighborhoods are burning, but the fire was set deliberately. And until we confront that, the flames will rage on.
Image via Bart Everson