Violence in Chicago: The battle over our imaginations

There’s a battle being fought in Chicago. No—not just the battles between gangs that plague some of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. It’s a battle over how we represent the realities of our communities. And its a battle over our imaginations.

In one corner, we have those who represent the city of Chicago as the increasingly violent murder capital of the country.

In the other corner… we have those who are right. 

The folks in the first corner consistently ignore massive differences between neighborhoods and, more than neighborhoods, social networks, that determine vulnerability. They consistently ignore the fact that violent crime has been decreasing in Chicago. And they consistently ignore the fact that Chicago’s murder rate places it, not at the top of the list, but squarely in the middle of U.S. cities of its stature.

Thankfully, there are those who will push back against these misrepresentations. Consider these two pieces about violent crime in Chicago:

Chicago: Not the Murder Capital, Never Has Been and Chicago the Murder Capital of the U.S.? Let’s Get Real.

The second, a Crain’s op-ed by Andrew Papachristos, puts statistics in context (always a good idea!) and makes four main points:

  • “First, far from being the most violent city in the U.S., Chicago falls roughly in the middle of the nation in violence and murder rates. Figure 1 shows the violent crime rate of all U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 residents or more. Chicago, this figure clearly shows, is not the most violent city in the country. Rather Chicago’s rate of violent crime is almost half that of cities like Detroit, Oakland, and St. Louis.”
  • “Second, Chicago is on track to have the lowest violent crime rate since 1972, and the lowest homicide rate since 1967. Figures 2 and 3 show the violent crime and homicide rate per 100,000 in Chicago over the last 48 years. Both of these figures show that Chicago—like many other U.S. cities—is experiencing some of its lowest levels of violence and murder in nearly five decades. And, the trend appears to be marching steadily downward.”
  • “Third, gangs have changed considerably over the last ten years. Chicago has been branded a “gangster city” since the days of Al Capone, regardless of the city’s murder rate. However, murders in Chicago are, on average, more likely to involve a member of a street gang than they were a decade ago. Also, today gang members are more likely to kill their allies and friends than their sworn enemies.”
  • “Finally, falls in crime and murder are unevenly distributed. While nearly every community in Chicago has experienced a decrease in violence since the mid-1990s, some communities saw greater declines than others. Figure 4 illustrates this point by mapping the changes in rates of violence crime from 2011 to 2013 by the city’s 77 community areas. More important, the difference in crime rates between the city’s lowest-crime communities and its highest-crime communities are rather dramatic. For example, the average annual homicide rate between 2000 and 2010 in Jefferson Park, on the city’s Northwest Side, was 3.1 per 100,000 residents. In stark contrast, West Garfield Park on the West Side had a rate of 64 per 100,000. Inequalities such as these remind us that even though the city as a whole has come far over the past decades, a significant and palpable crime gap remains.”

We can’t say it enough: Just as it would be irresponsible to ignore the plight of communities that are suffering from outbreaks of violence, it is simply irresponsible to characterize Chicago as the murder capital of the country, to ignore the decline in violence crime in the city, or to ignore the variability of vulnerability across networks or neighborhoods.

What does it take to be responsible with information about violence in the city? Responsibility demands that we, as Papachristos suggests, put the statistics in context. Whether he intended it or not, this is the most significant meaning of “get real!” in Papachristos’ title: It might keep viewers watching the news past the commercials. It might be great click-bait. But it’s simply not real to divorce weekly body counts—as catastrophic as they are—from the city’s history and broader complexities. 

Keeping it real requires a certain sort of imagination. Specifically, it requires some ”Sociological Imagination,” the ability to connect the personal and the social, the individual and the collective, the biographical and the historical. If we don’t exercise our sociological imaginations in the interest of responsibly representing our communities, the alternative will be to have our imaginations colonized by facile and irresponsible manipulation.

It’s time to choose what kind of imagination we want to have.

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