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‘We all pay the cost’ of city violence

New book by former University of Chicago professor ties Chicago violence to centuries of racial repression.

A new book examining social and cultural roots of Chicago violence by former University of Chicago professor Dexter R. Voisin has been published by Columbia University Press.
A new book examining social and cultural roots of Chicago violence by former University of Chicago professor Dexter R. Voisin has been published by Columbia University Press.

Before I spoke with Dexter R. Voisin, I prepared by counting articles in that day’s Sun-Times. In the first 17 pages, there were 18 local stories.

Of those stories, eight — 44 percent — involved violence. Five people shot at a barbershop in East Garfield Park. A 23-year-old man shot and killed hours after an anti-violence rally. Two articles on years of legal ramifications following past homicides. The mayor spending $7.5 million on violence prevention. And more.

An average day. Or as Voisin, who spent 20 years as a professor at the University of Chicago studying urban violence, puts it in his new book, “America the Beautiful and Violent: Black Youth & Neighborhood Trauma in Chicago”: “The abhorrent has become the American norm.”

Well, the Chicago norm, anyway. New York and Los Angeles both seem to have discovered some anti-violence secret sauce that eludes us. In 2018, Los Angeles’ murder rate was 6.4 per 100,000 residents; New York’s was 3.7; Chicago’s was 20.7.

Not bad enough to put us in the top 10 (St. Louis, at No. 1, has triple our murder rate). But enough to wonder what’s wrong and how it can be fixed. Voisin, who last summer moved to Canada to be dean of the University of Toronto’s school of social work, sees Chicago urban violence as reflecting centuries of American political violence.

”This is really about resources,” said Voisin. “The structural driver of violence is really a resource issue. If you put white kids, Asian kids, any other group of individuals within these enclaves of need, you would have similar results.”

”Enclaves of need” is academic-speak for poor neighborhoods.

”These enclaves of need were created by America’s violent policies,” he said. “The lack of resources occur within a few ZIP codes. A small percentage of individuals drive gun violence and gang violence clustered within these abhorrent conditions.”

Some would argue that gives a pass to individuals — that blaming the environment suggests residents have no volition. What about free will?

”It’s easy to demonize kids, demonize communities,” he said. “But if you pull curtain back, ZIP code determines outcome.”

So if you grow up in 60062, society applauds as you toddle off to law school. If you grow up in 60621, unless you’ve very lucky, the cultural chute rushes you to prison.

”Some Englewood communities have 70 percent black male involvement in the criminal justice system,” Voisin said. “Higher surveillance, stop and frisk, higher level of contact and interaction with the police means a higher number of arrests.”

What’s to be done? Paying attention is a start.

“We all are impacted either directly or indirectly, psychologically, financially, by violence,” said Voisin. “We all pay the cost, the privileged as well as the subjugated. You have to close off a part of yourself, a party of humanity. You have to numb yourself, to dampen that voice. In terms of white guilt, it is very often deafening and disturbing. We’re living in two Americas.”

Given our current political moment, progress doesn’t seem on the table.

“Condoleezza Rice says racism is America’s birth defect,” said Voisin. “We can cover it up. We can camouflage it, but we cannot erase it. And what Trump has done has taken the make-up off of the birth defect.”

I floated my Trump-as-X-ray thesis. That Trump has done the country a favor, by holding up a mirror to our malignant tumor. All that fear and hatred were there before he showed up. They’ll still be there when Trump leaves. He forces us to see our country as it really is.

”He’s taken the veneer off,” Voisin agreed. “He has given us permission to demonize those communities untouched by America’s prosperity. To villainize those communities. Until we address the issues of othering America, we will not address these inequalities or realize how these systemic inequalities impact us all.”

“America the Beautiful and Violent” does sometimes bog down in academic throat-clearing. Still, I found it useful as a compendium of statistics, arguments and literary references.

For instance, it starts with an unfamiliar African proverb: ”Until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.”

Hard to argue with that one.

Editor’s Note: Dexter Voisin will talk about his book at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, at The Center for Race, Politics and Culture, 5733 S. University Ave., Chicago.