Chicago is desperate for action

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Demonstrators calling for an end to gun violence in a downtown Chicago march on Dec. 31, 2015. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Chicago, America’s third largest city, is plagued by violence and poverty, made worse by racial and class divisions. A poll just released by the Kaiser Foundation and the New York Times depicts a city that is losing faith in its basic public institutions from the police to the mayor’s office. The vast majority think the city is on the wrong track, with the greatest unity found in their unfavorable opinion about the job Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing.

Chicago has nearly equal numbers of black, Hispanic and white residents, but they live largely in separate sides of town and in separate realities. African-Americans and Latinos are far unhappier with basic aspects of their neighborhoods, from parks to public schools. Crime and violence is the biggest issue for all Chicagoans, but while 41 percent of blacks think their neighborhoods are not safe or not too safe, only 17 percent of whites share their fears. In the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting — where a teenager was shot 16 times and killed by a white Chicago policeman, Chicagoans believe the police are biased, unaccountable and badly in need of reform.

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On the poverty-ridden south and west sides of town, parents fear for the young. Among African-Americans, overwhelming majorities worry that it is likely or very likely that a young person in their neighborhood will end up in a gang (75 percent), abuse alcohol or drugs (83 percent), got to jail (81 percent) or be a victim of violence (86 percent). These are measures of despair.

The Kaiser/NYT poll only documents what we already knew. It details the “whereas.” Any statement of action begins with the whereas — whereas this is true, and this is true — detailing the conditions that demand action.

What is missing in Chicago isn’t evidence of the whereas, it is the plan for the “therefore.” Whereas these conditions are unjust and unsustainable, therefore we will take the following actions. On police reform, Chicago is beginning to see the first stirrings of reform, although nothing close to the comprehensive reforms demanded by the mayor’s own independent commission.

But on violence, crime, jobs, housing, public schools, parks, trash removal, violence and drugs, there is no plan for action, no “therefore” to address the wretched whereas. In Chicago, 60 percent of whites think their neighborhood is a good or excellent place to raise children. Seventy percent of blacks think their neighborhood is only fair or poor (nearly half — 44 percent — say poor). More than two-thirds would rather live somewhere else.

Blacks and Latinos in Chicago believe that the mayor does not care about people like them. While a majority of whites believe he cares, nearly two-thirds of black think he does not. The lack of action is assumed to express a lack of concern.

Look across the country at our major cities: Chicago is not alone. The problems of racial isolation, entrenched poverty, bad schools and lousy services, dangerous streets, guns and drugs plague many of our cities. The “therefore” ought to be a national initiative, driving state and local activity, on jobs and urban development. But Washington is dysfunctional, with even minor reforms held hostage by the obstructionist Congress. President Obama has chosen not to put this high on his priorities. And the rich and entrenched interests that dominate our politics continue to ignore the misery.

But a whereas without a therefore isn’t a stable reality. Trapped people with no hope are like dry kindling, susceptible to any spark. If the powerful don’t leave people with hope, people will express their despair. Real action — a serious plan for reform with the resources needed to provide it — is long past due.

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