Why does murder matter more in Colorado than Chicago?

The Colorado movie theater shooting was tragic and has rightly received significant media focus.  Twelve lives lost is twelve too many.  Given the amount of media attention devoted to this tragedy it might seem that murder on this scale is unique but, as Murtaza Hussain in Salon points out, it’s not.

[As] heinous as the Colorado shooting was, viewed on its own it is worth noting that in terms of scale it pales in comparison to the near-industrial-level killing that regularly ravages much of inner-city America; in particular the city of Chicago, which has been grappling with years of protracted violence that has produced numbers of dead and wounded more appropriate to an active war zone than a major American city.

Just how bad is the murder rate in Chicago?  Hussain points out that the 5,000 Chicago residents who have been killed by gun violence since 2001 is “more than double the number of American soldiers who have been killed fighting in Afghanistan during the same period.”  In the article Hussain wonders why it is that attention and sympathy is disproportionally directed towards the theater tragedy while Chicago, according to the local NBC news affiliate, has the highest murder rate among similar global cities.

Photo by Daniel Schwen (cc).

Why does the murder rate in Chicago receive so little press?

In the Reader Steve Bogira makes some startling observations about poverty and homicide in Chicago.  Using data from the Department of Public Health, Bogira lists Chicago’s five poorest neighborhoods along with the five least poor and the disparity is staggering: 13 murders in the poorest neighborhoods for every 1 murder in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.

So is poverty the cause of the media’s inattention to the epidemic of violence in Chicago?  Perhaps in part.  Without knowing for sure, it seems likely that the victims of the theater shooting represented a higher – or, at least, more diverse – socioeconomic range than do the victims of most Chicago murders.

“This is what apartheid looks like.”

But poverty isn’t the whole story. Bogira points out an additional difference between  the poorest and least poor neighborhoods.  Of the poorest neighborhoods each is more than 90% African American.  Of the five most affluent neighborhoods Mount Greenwood has the highest percentage of African Americans at a mere 5%.  Bogira puts it plainly: “This is what apartheid looks like.”

So while poverty plays a role in our apathy towards Chicago’s violence it is a role that is intimately tied to race.  Murder in this city matters less than murder in Colorado because those who suffer and die here are people of color.

This may sound like an ugly stretch to some but consider Michael Skolnik’s thought experiment.  In an article for the Global Grind he imagines this headline: “53 WHITE People Shot! 10 Dead! One Weekend!”  Everything about the headline is true, pulled from a weekend in May, except the race of the victims.  But had they been white Skolnik knows what our collective responsive to that headline would have looked like.

By the time you read it, the Governor would have already deployed the National Guard. The President would have already made a statement. A curfew would have been set for anyone under 18. Schools would have been closed. Check points would have been set up around the city. Every active police officer would be called into work. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News would all break into their regular scheduled programming for a special report.

It’s right to mourn those murdered in Colorado.  Lives were violently cut short and these deaths ought to provoke both our grief and criticism about how such a thing could happen.  But until we care as deeply for those deemed less valuable by the media and others our grief and criticism may say more about us than we’d like to admit.

10 thoughts on “Why does murder matter more in Colorado than Chicago?

  1. Great post man… really convicts me on how I respond (or don’t) to the crime in my city.

    I do want to point out however that, at least statistically, the demographics of Aurora are fairly diverse, especially compared to the rest of the state: 47% white, 28% hispanic, 16% black, 5% asian. (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/08/0804000.html)

    I don’t think this changes you main point about our apathy regarding violence in under resourced neighborhoods, except add some nuance to what diverts our attention.

  2. I think people care deeply about the murder rate in Chicago they just aren’t sure what they can do to change it. Can you make any suggestions as to what can be done to change it? Would the National Guard making camp in the inner city really be welcomed or would it lead to even more cries of racism? What actions would a suburban white conservative man take to show that he cares about the murder rate in the inner city?
    It feels as though people like myself are labeled as uncaring not based on facts but on the impact of a long term strategy to brand white people and conservatives as having values that differ from those of the African american community. The democratic party can say anything or do anything and it will still get the vote of Chicagoans. Just look at the recent statements of the Mayor that are meant to block a new businesses and the entry level jobs it would provide. I couldn’t imagine a suburban Mayor winning reelection if he made similar statements.
    The thing that moves me most about the city is the highschool graduation rate of around 50% and the impact that not completing highschool will have over the long term on these individuals. From my perspective if you want to have an impact on poverty and crime you need to do something to change the drop out rate.
    For me that means supporting 3 Christian Schools in Chicago. It means volunteering at a resale shop that use the money generated to support 4 Christian Schools 3 that operate in Chicago. It means donating money to an organization that helps with emergency financial needs for those that live in poverty. I’m sure I should do more.
    Sometime take a look at how public education is funded in Illinois. Our state is dead last in funding from the state. The average school district in Illinois receives 28% of their budget from the state. In the suburban district I live in less than 7% comes from the state with the majority of the funding raised through property taxes. That means if you want to live in the suburban areas around Chicago with the schools with higher graduation rates you will have to be able to pay high property taxes. In effect the high property taxes are used to create a barrier fence around the suburban schools to keep low income people out. Now the politicians want to shift the pension cost onto the property taxpayers raising property taxes in the suburbs even higher which in turn will make it even harder for a low income family to move out of areas with low graduation rates.

  3. Killings in places like Chcago get less attention because of who does the killing, not because of who gets killed. Media newsfolk love to show perpetrators, but they don’t want to show who does murders in places like Chicago, for they believe that to do so would be to reinforce prejudices and sterotypes.

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