Occasionally, coastal journalists check in on Chicago and marvel at its homicide rates. Today it’s Gawker, of all places, wherein Cord Jefferson makes the oft-stated point that, while the media piles on mass shootings, it pays less attention to ongoing, high levels of violence (presumably local media is an exception to this). Some notes:
Some people, especially the police, like to blame the violence on gangs, but Berkley law professor Franklin Zimring told the Daily Beast last month that saying Chicago violence is mostly gang-related is “both helpful and extremely mysterious.” “Because there is no sense that Chicago has a gang profile which is vastly different from that of Los Angeles, and yet [the murder rate in] Los Angeles has continued [to be] low,” he said.
OK: by FBI numbers, Los Angeles County has the most gang members, 68,000, followed by Cook County with 60,000.
Los Angeles County has almost 10 million people; Cook County has 5.2 million people. So that’s a difference. And that’s if you go by the FBI’s numbers for Chicago, which are low. The Crime Commission’s most recent gang book, working on 2011 data from the CPD, estimated that in the greater metro area (bigger than the county, obviously) there are 68,000 to 150,000. Noah Isackson, in his recent profile of Garry McCarthy, got estimates of 70,000 to 120,000. Chicago and Los Angeles are comparable in that both have old, entrenched gangs, but the statistics indicade that Chicago has far more gang members per capita than Los Angeles.
(As a side note, Isackson also found this: “McCarthy’s citywide gang audit, completed in May, shows that Chicago now has 59 active street gangs with 625 factions. That’s up from 500 factions and 68 gangs in 2003. This continued fracturing of the local gangs, McCarthy believes, is the reason for the rash of recent violence.” So we have fewer gangs now, but more factions, a major problem for the CPD.)
There are other big differences between Chicago and Los Angeles, not to mention other major U.S. cities:
* Concentrated poverty: “what may matter most for children’s cognitive development is to avoid living in the most severely economically distressed or dangerous neighborhoods in the country, neighborhoods that are found in cities like Baltimore and Chicago but are less prevalent even in other major American cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and New York.
* Racial segregation (from the same report): “Much, but certainly not all, of the difference in concentrated disadvantage in Baltimore and Chicago compared to the other three MTO [Moving to Opportunity] cities is due to the substantially greater level of racial segregation in Chicago and Baltimore.”
(Much has been made of how “Chicago is more violent than Kabul"—not the actual statistic—and how Chicago is “the world’s deadliest city,” but that’s only true if you limit it to a certain size of developed-world metropolis. U.S. cities that most people would consider “major” have much higher homicide rates. New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Newark, and Detroit all have homicide rates twice that of Chicago’s, at least as of 2010. I mention this not to minimize Chicago’s homicide rate but to suggest that other cities, if smaller, have similar problems that grow from similiar roots.)
* Immigration: “Notably, we found a signiﬁcantly lower rate of violence among Mexican-Americans compared to blacks and whites. A major reason is that more than a quarter of those of Mexican descent were born abroad and more than half lived in neighborhoods where the majority of residents were also Mexican…. Crime in Los Angeles dropped considerably in the late 1990s (45 percent overall) as did other Hispanic inﬂuenced cities such as San Jose, Dallas, and Phoenix. The same can be said for cities smack on the border like El Paso and San Diego, which have long ranked as low-crime areas.”
* Public housing: “Rather than reconstruction of housing units in previously devastated neighborhoods, Chicago decided to demolish the high-rise housing projects built in the 1960s. At its peak, the 28, 16-story towers of Robert Taylor Homes housed 27,000 residents and was part of several public housing projects that consisted of the “densest concentration of public housing in the nation” (Cohen and Taylor 188). Rather than build public housing for the over-crowded Black population in “integrated areas, Richard J. Daley packed public housing into the ghetto and “reinforced the city’s racial boundaries” (Cohen and Taylor 184).
Jefferson has something of a point when he writes that “we as a nation care less when it’s Chicagoans dying in their neighborhoods instead of Batman fans in a movie theater,” but it sort of depends on what you mean by caring. The Aurora shooting may get more column inches and air time, but mass shootings haven’t been as intensively studied, over time, as homicide in Chicago has—our city has been one of the most intensively studied in the country over the past century, and its ongoing crime problem has generated reams of academic and journalistic work, from Robert Sampson and Andrew Papachristos to Alex Kotlowitz and Steve Bogira. Just because it’s not on CNN every day doesn’t mean we don’t know a lot about “wherever and why-ever and whomever is doing these shootings,” and the problem’s historical origins. Bogira sums it up:
Let’s remember how things got this way, in Chicago and a host of other northern cities. Policies throughout the first seven decades of the 20th Century—some governmental, some commercial—hemmed blacks in geographically. So did the bombing and burning of the homes of blacks who tried moving into white neighborhoods, and the shooting and stoning of these intruders. Racial segregation combined perfectly with racial discrimination in hiring and schooling to create vast areas of concentrated poverty—most notably in housing projects, but in other black neighborhoods as well. In areas of concentrated poverty, children are far more likely to grow up with one parent or no parent, neglected and abused, amid alcoholism and drug addiction. If you want children to become violent in their teens and early 20s, these are the right ingredients. Merely having more police around to catch them in the act is like throwing thimblefuls of water on a house fire.
It’s not just homicide, as journalists like Bogira and researchers like Sampson have written many, many times: it’s also public health outcomes more generally. The hell of it is that a lot of people do care, even if their extensive work doesn’t always break through to public consciousness—and when someone with a big audience ignores it, it’s kind of a shame.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune