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An Enduring Emergency
In early August 2018 I took a trip to Chicago, the city where I grew up. While I was there, the city suffered what newspapers described as one of its deadliest weekends in recent memory. Between 5:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon, August 3, and 6:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6, at least seventy-one people were shot in the city, of whom twelve died. Thirty of the victims were shot within a single three-hour period early Sunday morning.
The violence was overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. Eight people were shot at one block party in South Side’s Gresham community alone. Anyone familiar with these neighborhoods would know that they are not strangers to this kind of violence, and that though the sheer amount of violence that week was unusual, its concentration in these particular places was not.1
The twelve people who died in the weekend’s shootings ranged in age from seventeen to fifty-nine, and they were a diverse group in other ways as well. Several were young men with extensive criminal records who were gunned down in what appeared to be gang-related disputes. Twenty-six-year-old Kendall Brown, killed by shots from a passing Jeep on the South Side around 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, had been arrested fourteen times between August 2009 and April 2014, including five times for domestic battery and once for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Others were the victims of trivial conflicts that escalated into deadly confrontations. Seventeen-year-old Kenny Ivory was shot twice after getting into an argument with some other boys while riding his bicycle near his home in Gresham. Thirty-year-old Earl Young was with his fiancée at her South Side apartment when they got into an argument with a neighbor about her puppies “peeing from her third-floor balcony onto his below.” The neighbor shot Earl in the back.2
Still other victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fifty-nine-year-old contractor Frank Warren was taking a lunch break just before noon on Saturday, on the grass in front of a house where he was working on a pool deck, in South Side’s Englewood community, when two men across the street began shooting at each other. Frank was hit twice in the abdomen and died shortly thereafter.3 Seventeen-year-old Jahnae Patterson, the lone female homicide victim that weekend, was at a late-night block party in North Lawndale on the West Side with her three best friends. As the four girls walked down the street to use the bathroom, two men began firing toward people at the block party. Jahnae was hit multiple times; she tried to run away but collapsed and died in the doorway of a nearby apartment building. She had hoped to become a nurse and had planned to buy a house someday with Chinyere Jordan, one of the friends who’d gone with her to the block party. “She shouldn’t have lost her life right here in front of everybody,” Chinyere said afterward. “We weren’t supposed to see that happen.”4
There was a grim sense of déjà vu to some of the twelve killings. Fifty-year-old Ron Johnson, who was shot in the head not far from his home in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the far South Side shortly after midnight on Monday morning, had just the day before gone to the funeral of one of his best friends—also shot to death in Altgeld Gardens.5
But though the twelve people killed over the weekend spanned a wide range of ages and social circumstances, almost all of them had one striking thing in common. With the sole exception of Frank Warren, the Englewood contractor, all were African American.6 And as with the concentration of these deaths in certain neighborhoods, there was nothing new about that, either. Of the 564 killings in Chicago from August 2017 to August 2018, the race of the victim was recorded for 504. Of those 504 victims, 411 were African American, 49 were Hispanic, 43 were white, and one was Asian.7 In the city as a whole, only 31 percent of the population is African American; roughly the same proportion is non-Hispanic white, 29 percent is Latino, and 6 percent Asian. African Americans, then, were less than a third of Chicago’s population but more than 80 percent of its victims of homicide.8 By contrast, non-Hispanic whites, also a third of the city’s population, were only 9 percent of homicide victims.
The media, not only in Chicago but nationally, expressed predictable shock over this weekend of violence, and speculated over what it was about the city of Chicago in particular that could explain it. But while Chicago’s homicide rate is very high—at 24 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017, it was roughly four times the rate for the country as a whole—it is routinely outpaced by that of many other American cities. Two cities just a stone’s throw from Chicago—St. Louis, Missouri, and Gary, Indiana—racked up homicide rates in 2017 that were well over two and a half times Chicago’s. Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, meanwhile, the perennially violence-torn small city of East St. Louis, Illinois, achieved a homicide rate of 111 per 100,000—close to five times Chicago’s rate of violent death.9
And in Chicago, as in all of these cities, violence has stalked the streets and homes for a long time. The city actually suffered its worst year for homicide in 1974, and though the numbers have fluctuated since then, there has never been a time in recent history that Chicago (or St. Louis, or New Orleans, or Detroit, or Baltimore) has not experienced levels of violent death that are otherwise seen only in the most violent countries of the developing world.10 And in every one of those cities, black Americans have been dramatically overrepresented among the victims.
In response to the especially deadly August weekend, Chicago’s police superintendent rushed to insist that “this is not a widespread issue among citizens of this city. This is a small subset of individuals who think they can play by their own rules because they continue to get a slap on the wrist when we arrest them.”11 The problem, he said, was that those who engaged in violence were not being held to account for their actions. “I hear people holding [the police] accountable all the time,” he said. “I never hear people saying those individuals out here on the streets need to stop pulling the trigger.” Those people, the superintendent concluded, “get a free pass from everybody, and they shouldn’t.” Chicago’s then mayor, Rahm Emanuel, called for an “attitudinal change” in the city. “This might not be politically correct,” he opined, “but I know the power of what faith and family can do.” A local city alderman said that it was up to “the community” to step up to put an end to the violence. The city promised to deploy an extra 430 police officers to the hardest-hit neighborhoods. When, despite the greatly increased police deployment, the city suffered another sixty shootings the following weekend, the police superintendent again reassured residents that the violence did not reflect anything about Chicago itself but only represented the actions of a “small element.”12 The following year, after two only slightly less deadly weekends—fifty-two shootings and eight deaths in the first weekend in June 2019, fifty-nine shot and seven killed over the first weekend in August—the response was not much different.13
And there was nothing new about this essentially evasive response, either. In Chicago, as in every other American city where violence is endemic, sudden flare-ups typically bring an initial flurry of outrage, sincere expressions of anger—usually directed at that “small element” who are seen as mainly responsible—and then a waning of interest. Not much is done to deal with the underlying problem, and the city goes back, at least for a while, to life as usual. Most of the time, in most places, violence in the black community doesn’t make the headlines or even rate a mention on nighttime TV. For most people who live outside the most stricken communities, deadly violence is just part of the background noise of contemporary American urban life, something that happens in “bad” neighborhoods—neighborhoods that are not theirs. That kind of complacency is harder to find in communities like North Lawndale or Englewood. But the people who live in those places usually have relatively little voice and even less political influence, which both serves to cover over the everyday violence that surrounds them and to ensure that the deeper conditions that cause it remain mostly unaddressed.
The result is that America continues to tolerate one of the most fundamental inequalities imaginable: a radical disparity in the very prospect of survival itself. And we tolerate it despite the fact that disparities in violence on this scale have been, for all practical purposes, eliminated in every other advanced industrial society. Other wealthy countries, to be sure, also have racial and ethnic differences in the risks of violent death and injury, but none come even close to the level of excess mortality, disability, and suffering that we have come to tacitly accept as part of the American landscape. And those stark gaps in the risks of violence do not stand alone: they are only one particularly glaring example of a much broader pattern of systemic racial inequalities in health and well-being that sets the United States off sharply from every other advanced nation in the world.14
In the United States today, a young black man has fifteen times the chances of dying from violence as his white counterpart. Violence takes more years of life from black men than cancer, stroke, and diabetes combined. It strikes even black women more often than white men and contributes significantly to persistently lower overall life expectancy and higher infant mortality among black Americans.15 These disparities contribute to sharply divergent overall patterns of life and death between whites and blacks in the United States. Yet aside from spectacular incidents like Chicago’s deadly summer weekends, they have largely receded into the background of public discussion and have very nearly disappeared as a target of public policy. It is hard to believe that the country would have the same tepid response if the racial distribution of violence were reversed. If young white men had the same homicide death rate as their African American counterparts do now, roughly 14,000 of them would have been victims of homicide in 2018, instead of the 930 who actually were. I think it is safe to say that if 14,000 young white men were dying of violence in the United States every year, it would be considered a problem calling for urgent attention, with resources to match.
Much of the country has been understandably outraged by the continuing plague of police killings of black Americans; after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, that anger exploded into some of the most widespread and sustained protests against police violence in US history. There has been far less outrage over the ongoing emergency of everyday interpersonal violence in black communities. But it is important to understand that both of these kinds of violence are closely related aspects of the overall environment of danger that exists in too many black neighborhoods and that both are bred by the same underlying conditions: the continuing marginality, neglect, and structural disadvantage those neighborhoods face. We find it easier to understand this connection when the hand that holds the gun that kills a young black man is that of a white police officer. When the hand belongs to another young black man, the connection is less direct and less transparent. But it is no less real. Our inability or unwillingness to recognize that connection represents a failure of the moral as well as the sociological imagination and helps to perpetuate a level of preventable trauma and needless suffering that has no counterpart anywhere in the developed world.
This book is about the extent, consequences, and causes of that suffering and about what it would take to end it. It has been hard for us, as a society, to face up to the reality of racial disparities in violence. Many people are anxious at the prospect of talking directly about these sensitive issues, afraid that even to bring them up will play into long-standing stereotypes about black people and crime. And the anxiety is understandable. The stereotypes are pervasive, and there is no shortage of people who are ready to use them in the service of racist and regressive social policies. For some, that is reason enough to bury the subject of race and violence as a focus of dialogue and social action. But while I understand and respect those fears, I can’t agree with the conclusion. Denial and avoidance can’t be our response to an ongoing public health crisis of devastating proportions. The stakes are simply too high. Violence not only takes a huge toll of lives in black America; it also reverberates beyond the immediate victims to undermine the quality of life of whole communities. And in the absence of serious intervention, it will continue to do so. That is not an outcome we should be willing to accept.
An open reckoning with the roots of this crisis is especially urgent because what is already a devastating problem could well get worse. As I write, Donald Trump’s presidential administration is vigorously pursuing policies at the national level that seem almost designed to exacerbate racial disparities in the risks of violent death and injury—policies that aim to reduce already meager public support for people living in low-income communities and to deepen their social and economic marginalization. Those policies, if carried out, will adversely affect Americans of all races but will hit black Americans especially hard. No one can predict the impact this will have on levels of violence in America’s communities, but it would be foolish to ignore the danger that these policies represent.16
Our response should not be to deny the reality of this emergency but to confront it openly—and to link it firmly to its real causes. Part of the reluctance to talk directly about high levels of violence in some black communities stems from the fear that the problem will be blamed on supposed inherent failings of black Americans themselves. But more than a century’s worth of careful research shows that the racial disparity in violence is not a symptom of community failure: it is a symptom of social injustice. And though that injustice is long-standing, it is also both preventable and reversible. Taking on this emergency with the seriousness it deserves requires that we understand its scope, consequences, and causes and that we think through what the evidence tells us about what needs to be done.
This book aims to contribute to that understanding. It is not meant to be a textbook or comprehensive academic treatise, or an original research monograph. It is an argument about why our stark racial disparities in violence exist and what strategies to combat them hold the most promise: an argument grounded in what is now a vast amount of research from many disciplines—criminology, sociology, psychology, public health, emergency medicine, and more. Much of that research is illuminating and important, but most of it never reaches a broad audience. My hope is that this book will help to both inform that wider audience about the depth and consequences of the racial violence divide and stimulate long-overdue social action to address its causes. We know a great deal about the sources of this enduring crisis and what it would take to end it. The problem is that we have failed to act on what we know.
I focus almost entirely on racial disparities in violent death and injury between black and white Americans—not because the experience of other groups is unimportant, but just the opposite. Stubbornly high rates of violent death and injury can be found, to varying degrees, in many communities, including white, Latino, Native American, and Asian. But all of these experiences are distinct, and we cannot do justice to any of them if we try to lump them together and examine them through a single lens. One of the main arguments in this book, indeed, is that the historical and contemporary experience of African Americans is profoundly different from that of other racial and ethnic groups and that we cannot fully understand their experience of violence without situating it within that unique context.
The following chapters describe the dimensions of the racial violence divide and its multiple impacts on communities, explore the long history of attempts to explain its social and economic roots, and point to some of the elements of a solution. Chapter 1 sketches the magnitude of the racial disparities in violence in the United States, exploring the patterns of both violent death and the far more common nonfatal (but often disabling) violence. I draw on a wealth of data and recent research in public health, criminology, and other disciplines to chart the extraordinary level of violence suffered by young black men in America, which puts them among the people at highest risk of violent death and injury anywhere in the world. But I also highlight the special vulnerability of black women and children—showing that the impact of racial disparities is so great that it often confounds our expectations about the relationships among gender, age, and the risks of violence. The evidence also strongly challenges two common but deeply misleading perceptions: that violence has become a relatively minor issue in the United States since the “crime drop” of the 1990s, and that we have arrived at a “color-blind” society in which opportunities and life conditions have become more and more indistinguishable between the races.
The consequences of concentrated violence do not end with the immediate damage done to the lives, bodies, and spirits of individual victims. Chapter 2 shows that in the most stricken communities, violence shapes and diminishes the quality of life in many ways—some of which, in a vicious cycle, work to perpetuate more violence in the future. I explore a fast-growing body of research, from public health, psychology, criminology, and other fields, showing that high levels of violence affect everything from the way parents raise their children to young people’s educational attainment, from mental and physical health to expectations for the future. These impacts are sometimes subtle and complex, but they are an integral aspect of the radically different experience of violence between black and white Americans.
In chapters 3 and 4, I delve into the rich and varied literature that seeks to explain the sources of that difference— a literature that stretches back well over a hundred years. Chapter 3 begins with the work of the great African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, whose book The Philadelphia Negro contains some of the earliest (and still most trenchant) analysis of the roots of urban violence in black America. It moves on to consider some important analyses of race and violence in the mid-twentieth century, including classic investigations of Southern black communities in the 1930s, the monumental project that culminated in Gunnar Myrdal’s enormously influential book An American Dilemma in the 1940s, and the pioneering work of the social psychologist Kenneth Clark on the “Dark Ghetto” of the urban North in the 1960s. I argue that despite some differences of perspective and emphasis, there was a remarkable degree of agreement among these writers about both the structural roots of racial disparities in violence and the strategies needed to confront them. All of them acknowledged the seriousness of the problem of violence in many black communities but also firmly connected it to the destructive impact of the specific history of racial oppression in America—a uniquely severe system of economic and political disadvantage that had inflicted pervasive harm on community life and personality. Though often overlooked today, this pioneering body of work remains vitally important—not only because it is a rich trove of insights on race and violence in America’s past, but because many of those insights, and the strategic ideas that flowed from them, remain fresh and relevant. Our failure to heed them, indeed, helps to explain why we have made so little headway against racialized violence thus far.
Chapter 4 brings the analysis up to the present. Since the 1980s, there has been an explosion of research on racial disparities in violence, much of which is specialized and often highly technical. This chapter makes no attempt to cover the entirety of that research but sifts out some of its most important findings and highlights their implications for social action. I argue that beneath the formidable complexity of much of this research, there is a remarkably consistent set of conclusions that, in all essential respects, upholds the perspective of the pioneering scholars of race and violence. Despite some controversy at the margins and disagreements on the specifics, the contemporary research hammers home those scholars’ core understanding: the high levels of violence that plague some African American communities are rooted in uniquely adverse structural conditions that are amplified by the enduring legacy of segregation and discrimination. And the latest research confirms the scope and depth of the social and personal harm that racial inequality continues to inflict in an era that is sometimes described as “color-blind.”
The very fact that we are still doing this kind of research is a sign of our national failure to address the roots of that harm. But the research is more than a record of failure: it also provides clues to the path forward. The evidence described in those two chapters points unambiguously to the key elements of a strategy for change. Many of those elements have been understood for generations. Yet our national response, with some notable exceptions, has consistently failed to make use of that knowledge. Chapter 5 argues that it is past time that we change direction and, finally, begin to tackle the long-standing structural roots of violence. Rather than presenting a simple “laundry list” of potentially helpful programs and policies, I focus on several core elements that I believe must be central in an effective strategy to put an end to the racial violence divide. Chief among them is public investment to strengthen the essential institutions of care, nurturance, and opportunity that all communities need in order to thrive but that have been systematically withheld—or stripped—from parts of black America. That means a commitment to guaranteeing meaningful work and to rebuilding a capable and nurturing public sector in education, health care, and crucial public services. A serious strategy against endemic violence will also require a more responsible gun policy and a fundamental rethinking of the way we approach preventive and rehabilitative work with the most vulnerable youth. And I argue that we will also need to roll back America’s disastrous investment in punitive control of black communities—a harsh and exclusionary strategy that has drained critical public resources and compounded the obstacles those communities face, while demonstrably failing to put an end to endemic violence.
Chapter 5 affirms the book’s central message—that the persistence of extreme levels of violent death and injury in one of the world’s wealthiest and most productive societies is a sign of a profound social failure. But it also shows that this failure is preventable. For more than a century, we have, in all important respects, known what is wrong and, at least in broad terms, what to do. At bottom, those disparities endure not because we do not understand them or because we are powerless to deal with them but because we—at least those of us with the capacity to effectively influence social, economic, and political decisions—have chosen again and again to allow them to persist.
Some readers may find the chapter’s proposals to be unrealistically ambitious. But I believe they are the ones that are most clearly supported by the evidence, and I do not think that anything less will suffice to put an end to this most egregious of racial injustices. It won’t be easy, but part of our problem has been the tendency to look for an easy solution at the expense of the solution that will actually work—to grasp at some new youth program or police tactic as if it will somehow overcome the effects of generations of exploitation and dispossession and the absence of solid paths to a more secure and just future. It hasn’t happened, and it won’t.
The book’s title is taken from W.E.B. Du Bois, who, speaking of the country’s attitude toward the well-being of black Americans generally, wrote at the close of the nineteenth century that there had been “few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”17 When it comes to the violence that afflicts black communities, a peculiar indifference still shapes our twenty-first-century response. This emergency persists for a tangle of intertwined reasons: the economic dispensability of poor Americans of all races in an increasingly heedless global economy; the fact that the communities that suffer violence the most are those with the least voice or influence in the political arena; the spread of a punitive and austere culture that has shaped crucial decisions about the allocation of social resources in ways that have damaged low-income people across the board, but African Americans especially. The racial violence divide, like other long-standing racial disparities in health and well-being, is not an inevitable fact of urban life or the result of abstract economic or technological forces. It is not a reflection of biological or cultural deficiencies. It is the result of conscious decisions that, while systematically impoverishing some communities, have helped to create extraordinary privilege and wealth in others. That wealth gives us both the means and the responsibility to reverse the consequences of those decisions. Our failure to do so—our peculiar indifference—is not only socially destructive and economically wasteful but a profound moral default.
Copyright © 2020 by Elliott Currie