Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of opinion essays, produced in cooperation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, exploring solutions to the scourge of gun violence in Chicago. The Crime Lab released a report this month about the historic surge in gun violence in Chicago last year, providing insight into what happened and why. Silencing the Guns continues the conversation.
Chicago’s growing gun violence is rooted in a history of racially concentrated poverty and remains the most intractable public health issue with which our city has yet to contend.
Gun violence in Chicago is part of a nefarious cycle of race and inequality, reflecting longstanding segregation and social inequalities. Racism makes it even more challenging for our black youth, especially young black men, to escape the lure of an underground economy in which possessions and territories — street corners and city blocks — become the spaces where worth and value are determined. A place where violence is currency.
I have great respect for the importance of research, having recently relaunched the Chicago Urban League’s Research and Policy Center. Data, however, cannot and should not be taken at face value as if in a vacuum, free of consideration of any other socially caused inequities that significantly affect their interpretation. While important, statistics and numbers alone can’t capture the complexity of the violence in our city.
We see this far too often in media headlines, speeches and reports that record body counts, as opposed to offering solutions. People of color are described in terms of hard facts and numbers, rather than as living human beings.
It is not enough to summarize the effects of gun violence in Chicago with banal graphs, numbers and soundbites — we must take a step back, look at the complete story and change our narrative. Without the social context to understand why some people live the way they do, we assume they live that way because they choose to.
Indeed, the League calls for great caution here. Simply analyzing the numbers, particularly when based on very small amounts of data, can lead to unintentionally — or intentionally — overgeneralizing and perpetuating false narratives without evidence.
Findings from a recently released University of Chicago Crime Lab report on 2016 gun violence show that the Chicago Police Department last year recovered an extraordinarily high number of guns, far many more than in any other major city.
However, one need only to dig into the Department of Justice’s new report on Chicago policing to find the cause — that police routinely stopped residents for minor violations and required that they bring the police a gun or two. These gun seizures, called “guns for freedom” by the Justice Department and community residents, encapsulates why residents might not want to interact with the police even after a homicide or shooting.
Simply noting the numbers of guns seized from African Americans under duress from the police reinforces a false narrative that African Americans as a whole are violent, when the truth is the police are violently forcing innocent people to bring them the guns. Imagine that happening in a white community.
So, how do we curb gun violence in Chicago? We start by acknowledging that poverty, inequities in the distribution of resources and a lack of educational and economic opportunities are among the fundamental factors driving violence. We start by acknowledging that mass incarceration continues to have a disproportionate impact on violence in some of our communities — and that affects us all.
Most importantly, we start by acknowledging that the racial divides and white privilege that are taking a stronger hold on our country have long had a hold on our city.
The escalating violence in Chicago will not be prevented until we find the moral courage to address the systemic racial issues that underlie it. The question, therefore, is not whether young blacks get involved in violent incidents more frequently than other races. The question to our legislators, our corporate citizens, and each other must be “are we tackling the root causes, or just the effects?”
The future of our city depends on how we collectively speak truth to power in addressing the role race plays today.
Shari Runner is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
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