“Is this a safe neighborhood?” It’s a question Maggie and I can expect to hear when friends from out of town visit our home in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. In fact, our neighborhood is quite safe. The nearby presence of the University of Chicago ensures the streets in our neighborhood are regularly and obviously policed. Our son plays in the park across the street and we walk for groceries and other errands at all hours of the day or night.
Despite the safety of our specific neighborhood, the question is not surprising. Gun violence and murder is well-known in our city; the news from the south and west sides of Chicago is grimly portrayed on a nightly basis. Last month the young Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a park one block from where our church gathers for Sunday worship.
Talking about this violence can seem futile: conversation does little to honor the dead and wounded nor are most of us interested in the long, complicated discussion about the systemic and historic causes for the bloodshed. It’s easier to turn away or propose simplistic solutions.
It was refreshing then, to listen to This American Life’s two-part series (part 1 & part 2) on gun violence in Chicago. For five months reporters – including the legendary Alex Kotlowitz – spent time in one high school that has experienced far more than its share of death. The perspectives from administrators, students, parents, teachers, and support staff go a long way toward a more nuanced and humble conversation. Their stories invite the rest of us to pay close attention.
The New York Times reports today that the over 500 killings in Chicago last year were primarily gang members killing other gang members. The Times frames the story as — surprise! — racism.
In fact racism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the article, the focus instead being on the segregation in our city. But by so quickly and cynically employing that blunt word, Dreher does the thing we white people often do around issues of race: he quickly dismisses the author’s premise as too simplistic and offers instead his own read of the situation. No matter that plenty of smart people have shown the connections between segregation, poverty, and violence in Chicago.
As disappointing as his quick disregard for these connections is his alternative explanation for the violence plaguing predominately African-American neighborhoods. “The problem'” he writes, “is rooted in the breakdown of the family.” Two things are especially bothersome about this explanation, typical among certain commentators and pundits. First: The neighborhoods profiled in the Times piece are filled with families, churches, mosques, block clubs, and other community organizations doing everything possible to protect and empower the family. I meet community leaders and clergy all the time whose social values are at least as conservative as those of Dreher.
Second: Are we to understand that only African-American families are breaking down? Is gun violence so much less in the predominately white Chicago neighborhoods because white people are better at keeping families together? I doubt this is what Dreher has in mind, though I’m not sure how else to interpret his point. Far more relevant to the murder rate are the resources available in the white neighborhoods. These families also experience family turmoil – though external pressures are less than in poor neighborhoods – but have access to the resources that help keep families together.
More could be said about Dreher’s too-simple analysis such as the history that led to our current segregation and the barely visible systems that keep old dividing lines in place. Again, I appreciate much of what Dreher writes and will continue to follow his blog closely while hoping this sort of analysis remains the exception.