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.