A man looks at a Chicago crime scene where a man was fatally shot in the head in August. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
For the past 18 years, I’ve walked regularly down Howard Street, on the far northern fringe of Chicago. It’s a colorful marketplace of dollar stores, chicken shacks, West Indian restaurants, Arab-owned groceries and hip-hop sneaker shops. It’s also the turf of Loyalty Over Cash, a Gangster Disciples faction that has been embroiled in a feud with the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters, another Gangster Disciples group operating a mile south. A few years ago, a drive-by gunman fired a bullet through a convenience store window, killing a customer inside. The store reopened two days later, without even covering the hole. The next week, a 16-year-old aspiring rapper was gunned down on a sidewalk at 3 in the morning. I got to the crime scene after the building engineer washed away the blood but before the TV van left.
Even in the midst of a gang war, I had no fear of getting shot. Why? Because I’m white.
There’s a ridiculous trope — put forward by the makers of TV crime dramas, auto alarm systems, handguns and attack ads against soft-on-crime politicians — that white people who set foot in the inner city are prey for African American criminals. Even my black neighbors believe it. “I think Caucasians who walk down this street are pretty brave,” one of the sneaker store owners told me.
“I think the black people are brave,” I said. “They’re the ones who get shot.”
Donald Trump brought up Chicago’s violence in last Monday night’s presidential debate, arguing that the city needs to hire more police officers and adopt the stop-and-frisk policies which he credits with reducing New York City’s homicide rate, but which were ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
“We need law and order in the inner cities, because the people that are most affected by what’s happening are African-American and Hispanic,” Trump said. He may not have the right solutions, but he is right about the racial disparities in the city’s slayings.
Chicago has more homicides than any other city in the United States — more than New York and Los Angeles combined — but white people are nearly as safe here as in Europe. Through late September, more than 550 people in Chicago have been homicide victims this year. Of those, more than 400 were black, about 90 were Latino and fewer than 30 were “white/other,” even though we’re the most numerous ethnic category in the city and the surrounding area. (Fewer than 10 victims were categorized as being of “unknown” ethnicity.) The black homicide rate last year was 46 per 100,000, higher than it was a decade ago. The white rate, which has declined, was 2.7. That means blacks are 17 times more likely to be killed than whites.
Walking through a high-crime neighborhood without fear of being shot is the ultimate white privilege. Belonging to a conquering culture provides a free pass on another race’s turf, an immunity from the violence that afflicts oppressed communities. Howard Street is the main drag of a neighborhood nicknamed the Juneway Jungle, or simply “the Jungle,” but I’ve never been hassled there, even at 1 in the morning. I look so square that no one even tries to sell me weed.
Obviously, whites are not immune to all crime. There was an outbreak of “gooning,” random beatings of pedestrians by youth mobs. One of my neighbors moved after he was strong-armed for his laptop. But those incidents fall far short of shootings, so they’re not going to make the news in a city with two murders a day.
Chicago is more notorious for gang activity now than at any time since the days of Al Capone. Spike Lee came to town in 2015 to shoot a “Lysistrata” takeoff titled “Chi-Raq ,” after a term coined by South Side rapper King Louie, who was shot in the head as he sat in a parked car last year. The BBC filmed a feature called “Life and death on the lost streets of Chicago ,” reporting from South and West side neighborhoods normally avoided by visitors, who confine themselves to the lakefront Green Zone.
The city has also become a whipping boy for conservative politicians and talking heads who blame its violence on (a) gun control, (b) eight decades of Democratic mayors or (c) absent fathers — all problems they say could be solved by electing Republicans. After basketball star Dwyane Wade’s cousin was killed in gang crossfire this summer, Trump tweeted: “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” Like his promises to protect gun rights and restore law and order, Trump’s concern for African American murder victims seems aimed more at addressing his white supporters’ fears of urban violence than at trying to convince blacks that he cares about their problems. Personally, I think I’m more likely to be shot by a mentally unstable young man in a movie theater than by a gangbanger in my neighborhood. That may sound naive, but it’s the naivete of experience.
In my lifetime, which began in 1967, it’s never been safer to be a white person in urban America. A study by a University of Chicago graduate student found that the city’s decline in murders since the 1990s has disproportionately benefited white neighborhoods: They’ve become less violent, while black neighborhoods are now deadlier — an inequality of violence that mirrors the economic inequality in a city losing its middle class. Lincoln Square, home to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Von Steuben Day Parade, made famous in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is murder-free most years. In Englewood, the South Side neighborhood that spawned Chief Keef and Lil Durk, who won record deals by rapping about gang violence, almost 65 people have been killed this year. Whites are far more likely to oppose gun control than blacks, but we’re not the ones getting shot.
Chicago is famously segregated, but the experiences of blacks and whites don’t vary just when we live in different neighborhoods. They vary within the same neighborhood. My census tract is 50 percent black and 37 percent white. That’s integration. But when I walk past a group of black men standing in front of the currency exchange, we have entirely different expectations of getting shot or arrested. I’ve only been stopped by the police once. I was a wearing a parka that hid my face. As soon as I turned around, the cop waved me off. We’re on the same sidewalk, but we live in different cities. The violence has touched those close to me — my church secretary’s son was killed during a struggle over a gun with his father — but never me personally.
“No one is safer in communities of color than white folks,” former New York City paramedic Daniel José Older wrote in Salon. White skin isn’t bulletproof. It’s more like a “force field . . . powered by the historically grounded assurance that the state and media will prosecute any untoward event.”
“I’m the invisible man,” says a white friend who works for a Howard Street social-service agency. Gangbangers don’t bother us, because we’re civilians in their conflicts. Also, we might be cops. Even if we aren’t, we’ll call the cops. We don’t follow the snitch code that says gangs should police their own disputes, without getting the authorities involved. We assume the authorities will be on our side.
That’s never been the case in the black community, and it’s even less so now, after highly publicized police shootings have further eroded trust in law enforcement. In Chicago, the coverup of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald reached all the way to the mayor’s office. University of Missouri at St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld believes police shootings may have contributed to violence in 10 cities with large African American populations — including Chicago, Cleveland, Washington and St. Louis — that accounted for two-thirds of the increase in big-city homicides in 2015.
“When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect, they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands,” Rosenfeld wrote in “Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions,” a report he prepared for the National Institute of Justice. “Interpersonal disputes are settled informally and often violently. Honor codes develop that encourage people to respond with violence to threats and disrespect. Predatory violence increases because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police. Individuals engage in ‘self-help’ and entire communities become ‘stateless’ social locations.”
(Trump supporters such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani like to turn the “Black Lives Matter” slogan around on the black community by arguing that blacks are greater threats to each other than the police are, which ignores the fact that law and order breaks down when the law itself becomes a source of disorder.)
A few years ago, I spent several weeks on the arsoned-out east side of Detroit, researching a book about Rust Belt cities. One of the locals was so unnerved by my exoticism that he demanded to know what I was doing on his street.
“It’s not usual to see a white person here,” he said. “You might be a cop.”
What I was doing was exercising my white privilege — to go wherever I want without worrying about anyone shooting at me.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."