Let's Talk About Chicago’s Gun Violence
President Trump has increasingly taken to bashing “Democrat run cities” as the cause for both the civil disobedience and rising gun violence. “These cities, it's like living in hell," Trump said in an interview on June 25.
It’s one of the Right’s favorite attacks. “The worst places for Black people are cities and these cities are run by Democrats.” This attack works on two levels. On the surface it disparages Democrats as being incompetent. More subtly, it lays the blame for systemic racism at the feet of the Left.
Here’s an example of this attack being deployed on Twitter by a self-styled “free thinker” (much of the far Right call themselves that):
The favorite target for Donald Trump and the “free thinker” crowd is Chicago. Just last year he said that the city was “embarrassing to us as a nation,” before adding that Afghanistan was “a safe place by comparison.” It’s not by the way
It’s cynical and disingenuous for the Right to distill Chicago’s complex history of racism and segregation, not to mention historically high gun violence, into a one sentence attack line. But of course that’s why it’s effective, because the truth is complicated, and doesn’t fit into a 280 character tweet.
So let’s dig in.
In the early 20th Century, Black Americans, seeking long-promised economic opportunity and fleeing white racial violence, began to migrate en mass to cities, many in the North. This long period is called the Great Migration.
Northern whites in cities like Chicago, ruled at the time largely by Republicans (like the notoriously corrupt “Big Bill” Thompson), responded to the influx at first with racial violence and later with specific ordinances and policies that not only discriminated against Blacks but actively worked to prohibit Black home ownership.
In fact, Chicago, due to a variety of historical forces, became an innovation hub for segregation.
Black migrants into Chicago were funneled into a batch of neighborhoods mainly on the southwest side of the city and a line was drawn around them. White businesses either moved out of those neighborhoods or exploited their residents. As most Black Chicagoans were denied access to the housing market—the single most important generator of sustained wealth in America—they were mostly kept poor and unable to create lasting legacy. As school funding became tied to property taxes most Black Chicagoans were denied the same quality of education as most whites.
Add in Chicago’s place as the economic and transportation hub of the nation, making it a natural breeding ground for illegal trafficking (booze during Prohibition, drugs ever since), and therefore corruption, and therefore crime. Add in minimum sentencing laws, disparities in drug sentencing, and a police department with a long history of brutality and racism. Add in a city that literally spills into a red state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country (yes, most guns used in Chicago are bought legally from Republican states, giving more weight to the argument for national gun laws).
What do you get? A marginalized, poor, Black community flooded with drugs, guns, and racist cops. Cops with one of the worst clearance rates in the nation.
Racism was built into the very bones of Chicago and the result today—made worse by racist national drug laws, ineffective national gun laws, and a police designed to protect profit over people—is some of the worst gun violence in the country, disproportionately affecting the Black Community.
To put this yet another way: white Chicagoans in the early 20th Century designed a racist system expressly to repress Black Americans migrating in from the South while lining the coffers of the political machine, whatever its political affiliation.
White Supremacists left the Democratic Party for the Republican Party in droves after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, championed by Southern Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson. And yet Democratic Chicago (the most diverse major city in America) didn’t elect its first black mayor until 1983.
What Trump and his “free thinker” followers don’t understand is that Chicago’s violence doesn’t prove that Democrats can’t run cities, it proves that systemic racism is so entrenched that even despite the efforts of numerous reform-minded mayors, activists, and aldermen change is incredibly difficult to achieve. You don’t end systemic racism with a police reform ordinance and a new afterschool program.
Chicago does not exist in a vacuum. It’s laws and policies were shaped by a culture of racism that for much of the century following the Civil War infected white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixie. Perhaps instead of attacking “Democrat run cities” and rewriting history, the Right should instead examine the white supremacy at the heart of its own ideology.