Homicide Watch and the Sociological Imagination: Toward a more nuanced, complex, and true account of violence in Chicago

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Everyone should read this piece, “What we talk about when we talk about violence in Chicago,” at NPR’s Code Switch channel. In it, author Gene Demby both offers and urges a more nuanced account of the much-publicized spates of violent crime that have plagued some of the city’s neighborhoods.

Demby’s piece is excellent. In it, we can see how the usual media coverage of violence in the city 1) blunts the the shape of individual events and lives, 2) distorts the picture of Chicago, and 3) masks important differences between neighborhoods by “blackboxing” the city. These things cannot be said often enough, but there is a bit of a tension embedded in Demby’s argument, and we would be better off if we made it more explicit.

  • Demby points out that our usual framework for processing media accounts of violence in Chicago blunts "the contours of individual lives and their particular, tragic ends" by treating crime as “part of a grim, undifferentiated parade of violence,” rather than as instances of violence wrought upon individuals and communities with unique stories. As often as possible, we need to see these stories and understand how different each is from the others. As Demby points out, the Chicago Sun-Times Homicide Watch has been putting human faces on victims–victims that sometimes otherwise become nothing more than numbers–by posting the details of each case to the extent that those details can be tracked down.
  • On the other hand, Demby also points out that media coverage of Chicago crime just as often distorts big-picture, city-level realities. Homicides in the city have been steadily declining for years, and by the only measure that actually makes any sense–rather than just “sensation!”–the city can’t be called the murder capital of the country:

Treating Chicagoland violence as merely a tally necessarily dehumanizes its victims, but it also obscures so much of the larger story about that violence. It’s data without context.

“If I tell you someone [weighs] 200 lbs., are they fat?” Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociologist who has been studying crime in Chicago for years, told me on Thursday. “No, you’d need to know about a bunch of other stuff.”

Folks started calling Chicago the “murder capital” after it logged more than 500 murders in 2012, more than any other city in the country. But simply considering the total homicide numbers for different cities in a given year is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. How large is a city’s population? Is that population spread out over a sprawling region or is its densely packed? If you were to assign that label to any city — and again, that designation paints a very incomplete, unhelpful picture — it might be less useful to look at total homicides and instead to look at the city’s homicide rate — the ratio of homicide to the total population. That is: how likely is a resident in a place to die by homicide? By that measure, Chicago doesn’t even crack the nation’s top 10.

Papachristos underscored an often-overlooked point: homicides in Chicago have been steadily declining for years, as they have everywhere in the country. A bloody stretch like the July 4th holiday suggests a different story and reinforces the city’s violent rep, but it’s a particularly gruesome bit of statistical noise.

“It was an awful, awful horrific weekend,” Papachristos said. “But you cannot predict a trend based on a weekend. There are spikes and drops. It never goes down in a straight line.”

  • It is also true that most media coverage masks the fact that Chicago neighborhoods can be as different one from another as night is from day.

[The] violence also isn’t equally distributed — not even close. Papachristos points to what he calls “the crime gap” — the huge disparity in homicide rates in different areas of the Windy City. “Even though the numbers in Chicago are what they are, the gap between the worst neighborhoods and the best neighborhoods is massive,” he said. The neighborhoods that have had the highest rates of violence over the last half-century still see the most violence. Ina paper published last year, Papachristos found that between 2000 and 2010, the murder rate for Jefferson Park on Chicago’s Northwest side was about 3.1 per 100,000 residents. But inWest Garfield Park, on the West Side, the homicide rate was 64 per 100,000 — more than 20 times higher.

The neighborhoods are about 10 miles apart, but may as well be different cities.

“The next big crime story is closing the crime gap,” Papachristos said. “As a society, we’re trying to do that to fix income equality, educational inequality — or I shouldn’t say we’re trying but we’re talking about it — but the crime gap hasn’t changed.”

But even in the violent neighborhoods, everyone isn’t equally at risk. Shooting and homicide victims tend to be tightly clustered, both socially and physically. “Eighty-five percent of violence — any shootings — happens among five percent of people,” Papachristos said. “It happens in these very small networks." According to research he did with his Yale colleague, Chris Wilderman, the gunshot victims in one troubled West Side neighborhood were overwhelmingly likely to be people with prior arrests. They were just a few handshakes removed from other gunshot victims, and likely to live within a few blocks of each other.

And here we get to the tension that the most nuanced accounts of Chicago violence would need to foreground. While it is true that each event, each life shattered, has its own unique story, it is also true that those stories often do have something in common. The violence covered in the media more often than not occurs in the city’s most vulnerable and distressed communities, neighborhoods suffering from a legacy of disinvestment.

There are indeed unique stories to tell, like the story of 23-year-old Terrance McNeal, an aspiring mechanic killed in a drive-by shooting in the city’s Austin neighborhood. There is the story told by multiple witnesses, and by McNeal himself before his death during surgery, of how Martel Halbert allegedly fired multiple shots into McNeal’s abdomen, knocking him off his new motorcycle while he was out to get a gyro for his girlfriend in the middle of the Austin night. The story of how Halbert allegedly got out of his own vehicle and approached McNeal, then trapped under his motorcycle, and attempted to shoot him again, but fled when his gun malfunctioned. Of course, there is also the story of McNeal’s life–all 23 years of it–and the lives of others living with the turmoil of his death. These are stories that should be told.

At the same time, McNeal’s story is older than his 23 years. The distress of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood is decades more than a century old. The roots of the neighborhood’s vulnerability–the specific shape of its built environment and social institutions–are tied to a history of racism, discrimination, and systematic disinvestment. These stories, which relate to the differences in crime rates across neighborhoods, should also be told.

I take it that this admittedly difficult course is one that Demby is trying to chart for us, and maybe even to walk himself. Demby actually does fairly well in urging us to take this more difficult path, but he does it without making the tension as explicit as I might prefer.

These difficulties are not new. For example, the same tensions exist, between the accounts of the aftermath of the 1995 heat wave generated by Eric Klinenberg and Mitchell Duneier. Indeed, these challenges are embedded in questions about how we know, represent, and respond to social realities. In his 1959 book The Sociological ImaginationC. Wright Mills urged readers embrace a way of knowing and representing social realities that would weave together the personal and the social, the individual and the collective, the biographical and the historical. In order to promote the most nuanced, complex, and true accounts of the violence burdening some Chicago neighborhoods, I think we need to foreground ways of knowing that embrace, rather than attempt to resolve or transcend, these poles, because it may be that no neat resolution is able to embody the realities and truths represented by both alternatives.

Indeed, if we are to do justice in our accounts of violence in Chicago, if we are to offer accounts that don’t blunt individual stories, don’t distort large-scale realities, and don’t mask differences between neighborhoods, and especially if we are to do justice in our accounts of how these stories intersect–how the personal and social, individual and collective, biographical and historical are woven together–then we must live with the tension that Demby seems to be pointing out, and we must urge others to do the same. If we are to tell the biography of Terrance McNeal without obscuring the history of Austin, and vice-versa, we’re going to need some sociological imagination.

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