What We Talk About When We Talk about Gun Violence
Who will survive in America? -Gil Scott-Heron, “Comment #1”
2013 in Chicago began a lot like 2012 closed: with blood in the streets. Five people died here on New Years’ Day. Four of them were black men thirty years old or younger—all from gunshots. January went on a lot like this. It was the city’s bloodiest on record in a decade, with more than forty homicides by month’s end. As local papers noted, that tally put early 2013 pretty much directly on pace with 2012’s astounding murder rate, which claimed the lives of more than five hundred Chicagoans over the course of the year.
This violence hasn’t proliferated across the city in general. Rather, as in other urban areas across the United States, it has been intensely localized in certain sections of the city—primarily in black enclaves on the city’s South and West Sides. In a city that’s thirty-three percent black, eighty percent of murder victims last year were African American. (A good portion of the rest were Latino.) Roughly the same percentages of those killings were reported to be gang-related.
On January 29, fifteen-year-old high school student Hadiya Pendleton became the face of this relentless spate of killings. Fatally shot in the back one day after school, Pendleton’s death was a tragedy of almost untellable proportions—a classically horrifying “wrong place/wrong time” incident that snuffed the life of a beautiful, high-achieving teenage girl on the straight road to college. When she was eleven, Hadiya made a public service announcement encouraging fellow young people to “say no to gangs.” Just days before she died, Pendleton had performed as majorette with her marching band at President Obama’s second inauguration. She dreamed of going to Northwestern University on Chicago’s north shore, and someday of being a journalist, pharmacist, or attorney.
After her killing, Pendleton’s death stuck in the national headlines in an unusual way, finally bringing some measure of sustained attention to Chicago’s epidemic of violence. Politicians both locally and in Washington invoked her death as symptomatic of the larger problem of gun violence in the U.S. Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to further saturate the city’s most violent neighborhoods with a beefed-up police presence. President Obama came to town in mid-February, in part to talk about the problem of gun violence. Importantly, he braided the talk within a larger one about the long-term project of rebuilding communities like many of those on the South Side, where jobs fled long ago and so many other resources followed with.
These are welcome signs, without question. (Well, mostly—while it’s had some success in the short term, Emanuel’s idea to flood the streets with still more cops is, somewhat characteristically, the opposite of a long-term solution.)
But the way the intense reactions of the press and politicians in Pendleton’s case pale in comparison to the normal treatment of nonwhite victims of gun violence is disheartening. Like many other urban sections across the country, grievously poor enclaves here in Chicago have a heavy concentration of gun violence that erupts on a daily basis. Three days before Hadiya Pendleton was murdered, a sixteen-year-old black boy named Antonio Fenner took a fatal bullet to the head in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. A week prior, nineteen-year-old Jovantay Alexander was killed in the New City district. Two days before that, it was seventeen-year-old Tyrone Lawson in Roseland. The days preceding, after, and intervening between these deaths were punctured by still dozens more gunshot killings of black and brown Chicagoans—most of them young people.
As the statistic of five hundred gunshot deaths in Chicago last year suggests, these neighborhoods—so impoverished in terms of city services, infrastructural investments, and employment opportunities—are rich in at least one material good: guns. The deluge of guns and the death that follows in Chicago echoes larger racial incongruities in homicides across the country. Black Americans die violent, gun-related deaths at remarkably disproportional rates compared to those of whites. In 2008, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported the black homicide victimization rate at six times that of whites. From 1980 to 2008, African Americans in the United States constituted 47.4% of homicide victims, although they were only roughly fourteen percent of the general population. And if we were to focus narrowly on particular metro areas in taking those measurements, those statistics would be even more out of line.
Until the Hadiya Pendleton killing, these statistics and the human stories they conceal held little place in national debates over gun violence. Despite the daily consistency of urban violence in America, the devastating suburban tragedies in Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, dominated the mainstream field of vision of what truly tragic violent acts look like. In his long-awaited national speech on gun control in January, President Obama made passing reference to the violence in Chicago, but the spirit and content of the moment were dominated by the memory of Newtown. When Obama finally came to Chicago in February to talk about guns, it was a forced issue—one driven by community activists who leaned on every lever they had to try to make it a politically, if not morally, unavoidable subject.
But the fact is that, for all their horrors, the death toll from mass shootings like those in Colorado and Connecticut constitutes a small fraction of total gun-related deaths in the U.S every year. Without minimizing the atrocity in those acts, even cumulatively their terrible toll pales in comparison to that in each of some of America’s major cities in any given year. The rhetoric and the framing of the conversation over gun violence, in short, don’t square with actual patterns of violence.
The disconnects between the realities of where gun violence happens and the perceptions thereof—in other words, the ways we misunderstand the geography of victimization—are deeply shaped by issues of race, class, and urbanity. Most of all, they are a product of the intertwining of the three.
There are ferocious myths, with deep currency in modern America, that caricature poor urban blacks, young men especially, as members of a pariah class: welfare bums, absent dads, dropouts and dopers. These myths about the social and civic fitness of the black poor have been at the center of conservative politics since at least the Reagan era, and they have only grown bigger teeth and a wider audience in today’s exceedingly crude and cruel “makers vs. takers” political calculus. They’re used to justify punitive criminal justice policies and containment law enforcement practices. In the social imagination, they construct impoverished black spaces as flatlands of crime and disorder—places of unmitigated chaos. They render the people inhabiting those spaces as innately dangerous and criminal—combatants in a largely intraracial war that Americans outside those communities don’t understand. In political terms, they reduce inner-city residents to mere shells of decent citizens—not just non-compliers with, but abusers of, the social contract. And they justify the withholding of capital and infrastructural investments to these neighborhoods, which serves to worsen the problems already extant in them.
The social costs of this are terrible. The most devastating may be the erosion of basic foundations of social empathy that govern civil society, and the destruction of distinctions between those who bring harm to society and those who don’t. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his Atlantic blog in January in reference to hip-hop culture, in black communities everywhere there are and always have been far more “citizens” than “soldiers.” This is a fact that too often is lost in the slew of cultural and political condemnations that rain down upon these communities. We lose sight of the fact that neighborhoods like those on Chicago’s South and West Sides—even those most wracked by violence—are home to millions of people who love and laugh and work and dream and hope and, too often, mourn. We lose track of the line between “soldiers” and “citizens.” News stations show a mother crying over a gunned-down son on the television, and news outlets speculate on what he did. What follows from doing so are reckless and horrible rationalizations for black death—ones that lead to a conceptual place in which every black body that falls is assumed to in some way be involved in, to extend Coates’s description, “soldiering.”
In this framework, to be black and young and dead means to be presumed guilty of something, at least, even if it’s just an abstraction of guilt by association. Even some initial reports following Hadiya Pendleton’s murder speculated that her death may have been a function of her hanging with the wrong crowd, because some gang members were mingling in the park where she was cut down that day after school. Pendleton is the exception that proves the rule: even when a black kid bleeds out in the streets in a plain case of mistaken identity or “wrong place/wrong time,” the first responses tend toward either victim- and culture-blaming, or to shaking heads and shrugging it off—as though the possibilities and risks of death were part of the cost of living (and dying) in the places those kids do.
In the sense that Hadiya’s death is at least something of an aberration in this general pattern, it’s only because of her seemingly unassailable goodness—and because of that, how compellingly made-for-media her life and death were. The statements we heard concerning her murder, over and over again, fell roughly in the realm of “Hadiya was too good to die.” No doubt. But what does that mean for the forty-one Chicagoans who died before her this January? Or for the more than five hundred, four hundred of them black, who died here last year? Or for the thousands more who died last year in the streets of New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and Cleveland and St. Louis? When we say that Hadiya Pendleton didn’t deserve to die because she was too good, what does our collective silence on the thousands of other violent blacks imply. Did they deserve their fate? If so, what makes us think so? And if not, why are they so profoundly forgotten when we talk (and don’t talk) about American gun violence?
Part of the answer lies in the tremendous disdain coursing through American society toward those young black people—many of them kids, really—who actually have become something like soldiers in the community. For all the fictions that get told in the media and the day-to-day, and for all the misplaced blame for why, there is truth to the idea that there’s real and immeasurable chaos regularly washing over the lives of young people in places like Chicago’s Englewood. Sometimes it’s less sudden and more subtle, nowhere and everywhere at once: in failing (and closing) schools, crumbling and diminishing public housing, the absence of quality health care facilities, the food insecurity. This is too often contorted into a box of personal or cultural failure, but it’s actually the stuff of ruinous social policies—the wreckage of decades of crushingly, demonstrably non-benign neglect by mayors and city councils and legislators all over the country. It’s the product of geographic segregation, capital flight, politics both careless and abusive, an out-of-control law enforcement structure that sweeps people up by the millions and deposits them back down with criminal records that render them nearly unhireable, and so on.
And then sometimes, and intimately related to its broader variants, the chaos is in human form, swaddled in gang colors. As was demonstrated that terrible day in late January, that sort of chaos all too frequently takes the lives of bystanders and noncombatants like Hadiya Pendleton. But it isn’t just deaths like Hadiya’s that are tragic in this respect. With great regularity, every single day in this country, gang life snatches kids her age and younger up as purveyors of its torrential violence, and puts just as many back down into their graves.
We keep hearing talking heads say people just simply need to stop joining gangs, but it isn’t that simple. For thousands of kids coming up today in the violence of Southside and Westside Chicago, joining a gang might mean having some protection from the violence around them—even if they’re aware of the evils they may have to perform to earn it. Violence in some enclaves has gotten so bad that many kids fear (with reason) even taking the walk to school. And gang turf, once concentrated in the hands of a few powerful gangs, is now so split up and geographically concentrated and rigid that walking block-to-block is a dangerous prospect. Within that context and when everything else has failed to provide security, a gang can look a lot like safety. When it seems like life might literally depend upon it, the choice to align with one can end up not being much choice at all. And while millions of teenagers across the country do make that choice one way or the other during their lives, none should have to.
This is not to deny the terrible things that gangs do. But it is to say that their appeal lies mostly in very real fears and traumas. Beyond that, it’s also in the prospect of gaining stature or earning respect in a world that pegs them as less valuable and from which they’ve been consistently alienated. And still more in the possibility of making some money—no small allure in neighborhoods where the only thing preventing someone from saying that the “legitimate” economy is failing is the fact that it pretty much failed long ago.
Political and law enforcement leaders in places like Chicago and elsewhere thus aren’t wrong to suggest that gang proliferation and warfare is at the center of the problem of urban violence. But they are powerfully wrong and intellectually dishonest or immature in stopping there. We’ve heard enough waxed poetics about the psychoses and pathologies of urban communities. We’ve received enough dumbly vague exhortations for kids to just make better choices, when those doing the lecturing aren’t presenting better options. We’ve seen enough wholesale deflections of blame onto kids’ parents—parents who, more often than not, are themselves deeply mired in poverty and struggling to find a way out. And we’ve witnessed the decisions by politicians to dump even more precious city resources into flooding the streets with greater numbers of cops, as Mayor Emanuel is doing in Chicago at the expense of meaningful resource investment. (Perhaps most gallingly, Emanuel announced the beefing-up of the police presence at roughly the same time that the city was making plans to close dozens of schools in low-income communities.)
All these things—every single one of the traditional political responses to urban violence—skirt the issue. What we need in place of these are more honest appreciations of what attracts people to gangs in the first place—of what has built them into such a core element of life in these places. We need political leaders with the courage to ask the right questions about the overwhelming inequalities in resources, jobs, education, and investment that are constitutive features of today’s urban landscape. We need them to have the fortitude to see the not-so-veiled connections between poverty and poor educational systems and persistent social alienation on the one hand, and why kids are drawn to organizations that extend an offer of protection, respect, and possible earning power, on the other. What we need more than anything is for people to understand that a gun control agenda that doesn’t push robust anti-poverty measures and center itself on urban reinvestment is really no agenda at all. We need a chorus of voices that tells every politician with an ear, from President Obama to Mayor Emanuel to every Senator and Congressperson and Governor and state legislator that’s ever seen starving the cities as a viable economic option, that if they care about gun violence (and, admittedly, some of them don’t) they need to take a much broader vision of its causes and consequences.
But so far, we’re our own worst enemy. Daily, black people’s lives leak out onto city streets. But at the societal level, our field of vision remains narrow when it comes to where gun violence turns truly horrific. As Hadiya Pendleton’s murder fades from the news cycle and we try to figure out where to go from here, mass tragedies in Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown need to be talked about, to be sure. But not at the expense of what’s happening in Brownsville and Lawndale and Compton. For far too long, victims of violence in these latter places have gone forsaken. This is the case mostly because the people dying in them are nonwhite and poor and lacking political power, and because one of the consequences of the mythmaking about the urban poor—perhaps the most potent and surely the saddest consequence—is that it normalizes the deaths of poor people of color and implicitly suggests that their lives have less value than school kids in Connecticut or moviegoers in Colorado.
In August 1964, black freedom movement activist Ella Baker stood in Jackson, Mississippi and delivered an anguished and angry message to the nation. Her speech came in the wake of a national outcry over the murders of an interracial team of civil rights workers (two white New Yorkers and a black Mississippi man) in nearby Neshoba County, which had compelled the federal government to launch a federal investigation into the violence being committed against civil rights workers in the Jim Crow South. This outcry was important to the civil rights movement, as Miss Baker knew. But coming as it did after a stunning national silence toward generations of white-on-black racial bloodletting in the Deep South, it also served as a painful reminder to black Americans of how comparatively little their lives meant. “Until the killing of black men—black mothers’ sons—becomes as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons,” Miss Baker thundered from the podium that night, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
A few months earlier, Miss Baker had described the goal of that year’s “Freedom Summer” organizing as an effort to make the rest of the country care about what was happening to black people in the Jim Crow South. “If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in,” she argued, “then we will have accomplished something.”
In 2013 we face a similar dilemma and obligation. As civil rights activists sought to do for the Deep South in the sixties, those of us interested in reducing gun violence in America today must figure out how to make the nation care about, and bear some responsibility for, what’s happening in Chicago and Detroit and Baltimore and elsewhere. Sorting out anti-violence strategies and policies must follow—ones that consider gun violence not in isolation, but alongside deeply entrenched patterns of systemic poverty, educational inequality, destructive criminal justice policies, and so forth. To mean much, the solutions we come out with on the other side would have to include vigorous urban reinvestment, among other things. President Obama’s overtures here last month are welcome and somewhat encouraging. But they aren’t enough: too loose in the connections they make; too soft; too localized.
Most critically, we must find a way to reinject some measure of social empathy and build understandings of the links between poverty and violence that lay at the heart of our national problem. In the face of immense and potent obstacles shaped by generations of racial and socioeconomic presumptions and antagonisms, we must try to force a collective readjustment of hearts and minds surrounding the bloody state of urban America. We must insist upon a broadening of vision in terms of who gets included in the category of “victim”—who exactly is “too good to die,” and why. And we must think more actively about the social cost when we assess the value of people’s lives on a sliding scale that’s as profoundly contoured by race and class as is the one so poisonously current in the United States today.
Simon Balto is a Ph.D. student in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Chicago.
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