Commentary: On Chicago’s Murder Problem

It’s the poverty, stupid.

Posted: 06/29/2012 06:21 PM EDT

While people around the country celebrate President Obama’s health care victory in the Supreme Court, back in Obama’s old stomping ground, Chicago, things aren’t as rosy. Over the past weekend, four people were gunned down in Chicago, two of whom were just teenagers. Then, this week, a 7-year-old girl, Heaven Sutton, was also killed when a stray bullet from a gun fight hit her in the back. Reports Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune:

She was selling candy and snow cones on a West Side sidewalk when gunfire broke out and a stray bullet struck her in the back. Just like that, her name joined the growing list of this year's homicide victims in Chicago, and her image — wide-eyed and smiling — became the face of a street violence outbreak that city officials are struggling to contain.

Sutton’s slaying, however accidental, made her the fourth person killed in her Westside neighborhood this week and the 20th minor killed this year. The murder rate in Chicago this year has jumped by almost 40 percent from where it was last year, with more than 250 homicides in the city since Jan. 1.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who once served as chief-of-staff to Obama, got upset during a press conference about the city’s crime:

“This is not about crime. This is about values. Take your gang conflict away from a 7-year-old. Who raised you? You have a 7-year-old selling lemonade. You’re a member of a gang coming to get lemonade and another gang member is driving by. Where were you raised and who raised you? Stay away from the kids,” the mayor said, his voice rising. “This is not about just crime. I’ll take the responsibility for what we need to do [about gangs]. But if you think this is not about partnership — if you do not think this is about a set of values. Near a child? How dare you.”

Of course, it’s quite simple for Mayor Emanuel to take citizens to task about their values. Much harder is understanding why people’s values are so twisted in the first place, understanding why an adult might be so careless and violent around other human beings, let alone children.

To answer those questions, a good place to start is at Chicago’s poverty rate, at 21.6 percent, is third highest among larger cities, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Beyond that, Chicago’s poverty rate among African-Americans is the highest in the country, at 32.2 percent. What’s more, of the metropolitan areas with the highest Black populations in America, Chicago had the highest Black unemployment rate in 2010, or 17 percent.

Mayor Emanuel is a smart man, but asking how people can ignore their values in order to join gangs and kill people is a dumb thing to ask. People join gangs and kill each other in order to make money when their options are limited, and right now, if you’re poor and Black in Chicago, your options are severely limited.


In order to lower the violent crime rate in Chicago, you’re also going to have to lower both the poverty rate and the unemployment rate, and give African-Americans a sense of agency and control over their lives. That won’t be a panacea, but it will help. Because it’s hard to get someone to value others’ lives if they don’t even value their own life.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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