Violence and a Chicago high school

March 6, 2013

Alan Maass provides a supplement to a powerful This American Life episode on violence in Chicago--by looking at the social and economic backdrop to the carnage.

IN LATE February, the National Public Radio program This American Life broadcast a gut-wrenching portrait of the consequences of gun violence in the city that has become the murder capital of the U.S.

This American Life's two-part show focused on one Chicago school--Harper High School, in West Englewood, a poverty-stricken and virtually all-Black neighborhood on the city's South Side. Harper has just over 500 students--but in the year leading up to the 2012-13 school year, 29 current and former students were shot. Eight of the 29 died.

"[I]t's hard not to think," This American Life host and producer Ira Glass said at the opening of the program, "that if you grafted these facts onto another high school in a wealthier place, maybe a other places, that would be national news, right? We would all know the name of that school."

Less than a week after the This American Life shows concluded, the Chicago Tribune's RedEye tabloid provided a perfect illustration of the double standard. In a short March 4 article about five Chicago residents "shot in overnight violence," the RedEye devoted 370 words to the one victim shot in a white neighborhood, and 23 words to the four people shot in Black neighborhoods--not even six words each.

A fellow student mourns at the funeral of a Harper High School student killed by gun violence
A fellow student mourns at the funeral of a Harper High School student killed by gun violence

The power of the This American Life show lies in its portrayal of the individuals caught in an epidemic of violence. We get to hear the voices of students explaining how they live their lives in a war zone, fearing each step on the walk from home to school--and the voices of Harper staff trying to cope with the continual traumas and stress inflicted on their students and on themselves.

But as incredible as its 120 minutes are, This American Life could have devoted another hour or three to the issues directly related to gun violence--the social and economic factors that cause the carnage.

Hopefully, every reader of will get to listen to the This American Life show--part one and part two can be heard online. But if we had the chance to tell you the other facts you should know about Harper High School and the city of Chicago, here's some of what you'd hear.


The most visible crystal-and-steel additions to Chicago's stunning skyline are along its southern edge. Not too long ago, the South Loop was block after block of low-rent office space, nondescript warehouses and empty lots, mostly deserted after nightfall. Today, it's the newest playground of the urban elite, filled with gleaming apartment towers and converted loft buildings, with all the accompanying bright restaurants, bars and stores.

The South Loop building boom brought an already obscene contrast into even sharper focus. Today, the luxurious homes of Chicago's super-rich and just-plain-well-to-do are closer than ever--literally a few dozen blocks away--to some of the most grinding poverty known to any American city.

According to a Chicago Reporter article citing 2009 Census data, of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., Chicago had the third-highest poverty rate. More than one in five residents--and more than one in three children--live below the official poverty line, which is set so low that even the families of full-time minimum-wage workers fall under.

Poverty is even more a factor in the predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Chicago is at the very top of the list of big cities when it comes to Black poverty--at a shocking 32.2 percent as of 2009. In the poorest neighborhoods, the poverty rate is closer to 50 percent--and, again, that's using the federal government's standards that understate poverty.

The visible contrast between the South Loop and the Black neighborhoods further down State Street is mirrored in the statistics that calculate inequality. According to data reported by Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor and community groups--in a study on gun violence with the subtitle "The Case for Raising Wages to Save Lives"--the gap between rich and poor is at levels associated with the Third World.

Income inequality in Chicago is comparable to that of El Salvador--a country notorious for its domination by an oligarchy of wealthy landowning families. According to Stand Up! Chicago, countries like Nigeria, Russia and the Philippines are more equal societies than the third-largest city in the U.S.

Like anywhere else in the world, crime and violence are one consequence of desperate poverty in a neighborhood like West Englewood. But there are so many other consequences, felt daily by those who live in them.

One example: If you look at a map showing the poorest parts of Chicago's West and North Sides, you'll also be looking at a map of what sociologists call "food deserts"--areas where access to fresh and healthful foods is severely limited because food and grocery companies won't locate supermarkets in these neighborhoods. The perverse result is that the poor often pay more for food--because they are forced to rely on small neighborhood stores that charge higher prices because they have a monopoly.

The health impacts of food deserts along with other factors are grim. As the Chicago Reader reported, homicides are 11 times more common in the city's five poorest neighborhoods than in its five least-poor neighborhoods, but the same is true about more common causes of death: Deaths related to diabetes or strokes are almost twice as common, and the infant mortality rate is two-and-a-half times higher. As of last year, the death rate from all causes was 60 percent higher in the poorest neighborhoods compared to the richest.

The Reader's conclusion: "[P]overty--and especially the concentration of poverty that segregation causes--kills disproportionately in nonviolent ways as well...Our comparison shows that poor African-American neighborhoods should come with a surgeon general's warning."

Unemployment and low wages

One of the many heart-wrenching moments of the This American Life show comes when a reporter follows a man outside his apartment as he explains that this is where he stood when he last saw his son alive. The father was leaving for his job and paused outside the front door to watch his son walk around the corner--he was shot and killed later that day.

Another underlying fact about that powerful moment: In a neighborhood like West Englewood, the likelihood that the father had a job to go to was less than 50-50.

As of January 2013, the overall official unemployment rate in the U.S. was 7.9 percent--still high several years after the Great Recession ended. The official jobless rate for African Americans that same month was 13.8 percent--twice that for whites at 7.0 percent. In Chicago, things are worse, even by the official numbers: as of the midpoint of last year, unemployment for Blacks was 19 percent, the third highest for any major city, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But like the poverty statistics, the real scope of the jobs crisis for Black communities isn't shown in the official figures. The federal government's top-line unemployment rate leaves out workers who would like to work full time, but can only find part-time work. It doesn't count "discouraged" workers who stopped looking for work and are deemed to have "dropped out" of the workforce. Young people who should be entering the workforce, but don't think they'll find a job, are also invisible.

In the poorest Black neighborhoods of a city like Chicago, all these categories loom large. So you get a more accurate picture by looking at the employment rate--that is, the percentage of people in the working-age population who have work.

According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study using statistics from 2010, Chicago was one of five large metropolitan areas where fewer than half of working-age Black men held jobs. And that's for the city as a whole--the percentage is lower in the poorest areas. The employment rate for women is higher, but it's still a fair bet that in West Englewood, it's the exception and not the rule when a resident of working age has been able to find a job.

Once again, the consequences are too numerous to name, but a pretty obvious one is that when opportunities to earn money through legitimate means are few and far between, people turn to illegitimate means as a matter of necessity. Though This American Life stressed other causes, a lot of the violence between gangs in Chicago is the result of conflicts over the drug trade.

As bad as the jobs crisis is for those who don't have one, people stuck in low-wage, dead end jobs don't have it that much better.

In one section, the Stand Up! Chicago report focused on the West Side neighborhood of Austin, where there were 36 homicides in 2012, more than any other neighborhood in a year when murders hit a new high for Chicago. Not surprisingly, official unemployment in Austin is 22 percent, more than twice the rate for the city as a whole. But the study also revealed the high number of Austin residents who work--only for paltry wages:

Compared with other community areas, Austin has the second-highest number of people working in the Loop's retail stores and restaurants. Furthermore, it ranks number one in people working in downtown department stores.

So finding a job isn't enough. The job has to pay enough for the families of Harper High School students to survive.

Housing and foreclosures

When the mortgage boom went bust at the end of the 2000s, the mainstream media knew who to blame: "Predatory borrowers," fumed Fox News' Michelle Malkin, "who secured financing and bought a home...with little money down, and bogus or no income verification."

The real predators, of course, were the mortgage companies, the banks and the investment firms that profited massively off the boom. But the caricature of low- or middle-income schemers taking advantage of gullible bankers provided a convenient scapegoat. And more often than not, the scapegoat had a Black or Brown face.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), from 2007 through 2009, there were 2.5 million completed foreclosures in the U.S., affecting nearly 8 percent of African American borrowers, compared to 4.5 percent of whites. The Center's June 2010 report estimated there would be as many as 13 million foreclosures before the crisis abated--and 21.6 percent of African American mortgage borrowers would be at risk of losing their homes.

The increase in Black home ownership in the early 2000s was, indeed, a product of the era of easy credit. But African Americans paid a higher price than anyone else. According to the CRL, Black borrowers were 150 percent more likely to be steered into a high-cost mortgage, with variable interest rates and hidden costs that ballooned monthly payments several years down the road. Even when they had similar incomes and credit scores to white borrowers, African Americans were 30 percent more likely to be pushed into these subprime mortgages, the CRL found.

Some economists think the housing market may have turned around, but Blacks won't be sharing in the recovery. Now that banks have tightened lending requirements, African Americans are victims of another form of discrimination.

Nearly one-third of Black applicants were denied mortgage loans in 2009, compared to 13.1 percent of whites, according to a CNN feature. "The disparity can't be explained solely by differences in applicants' incomes and loan amount requested," CNN reported. "Even when these factors are the same, Blacks are still twice as likely to be turned down, a Home Mortgage Disclosure Act report found."

In Chicago, scars of the foreclosure crisis are visible across the city, but especially in Black neighborhoods. In a 2009 study, the Woodstock Institute singled out West Englewood as one of the areas where foreclosures exploded in the first stage of the crisis. Across the city, by the end of 2008, around two-thirds of vacant, foreclosed-on properties were located in mostly African American communities, the institute found.

As researchers have proven, foreclosures affect more than the homeowners who lose their homes. Each foreclosure causes homes in a surrounding one-eighth-mile radius to lose 0.5 to 2 percent of their value--in other words, compounding the crisis for the whole community. Another study found that every 1 percent increase in the foreclosure rate for Chicago neighborhoods was accompanied by a 2 percent increase in the rate of violent crime.

The crisis for homeowners trickled down, too. Perversely, as housing prices dropped through the floor, rents increased--in part because so many victims of foreclosure were thrown back into the rental market, increasing demand.

Even those who can afford to pay the monthly rent aren't safe from the crisis, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor pointed out at Why? Another consequence of the housing crisis is increasing foreclosures on multifamily rental properties. According to the Chicago Reporter, two of every three small apartment buildings foreclosed upon in the city are in African American neighborhoods.

These are some of the factors affecting whether the students going to Harper High School have a roof over their heads.

Police and the injustice system

This American Life made one brief, tantalizing comment about the relationship between police and the gang conflicts around Harper High School--that Chicago police have been so effective in going after the biggest gangs and their leaders that the hierarchy in neighborhoods like West Englewood has splintered into shards of much smaller gangs, controlling and fighting over no more than a few blocks.

Whatever the truth of this observation, there's much, much more to say about the tangled history of violent police and gang violence in Black neighborhoods.

For one thing, the cops end up on the same side as gangs--tied together in business relationships--more often than most people would guess.

To cite one example, in November 2011, two Chicago officers were charged with using police vehicles, service weapons and uniforms to commit armed robberies of drug dealers--they turned the drugs and money over to the Latin Kings in return for kickbacks, according to media reports. A more extensive police robbery ring was exposed in the mid-2000s, involving members of the elite Special Operations Section. Several officers implicated in the corruption and brutality were based in Englewood.

There's a long list of similar scandals in the ugly past of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). But even more often, the CPD has been guilty of treating young Black men and women--like those who attend Harper High School today--like animals.

As a CPD lieutenant and later commander, Jon Burge's beat was Area 2 and Area 3 on the South Side. During the 1970s and '80s, he and his detectives committed acts of torture--beatings, electrical shocks, suffocation, mock executions--against hundreds of Black suspects to try to extract confessions.

Back in 1981, contributor Mark Clements was 16 years old and attending the GED program at Kennedy-King College--about a mile-and-a-half east of where Harper High School stands today--when he was picked up and questioned about a murder case. Burge's men tortured him into a false confession. He spent the next 28 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit before he was finally released.

Harassment and brutality are hardly a thing of the past for Chicago cops. One small indicator: Since 2003, the city of Chicago has paid $63.4 million to law firms to defend police officers against lawsuits charging misconduct of various kinds, according to the People's Law Office.

During the This American Life shows on Harper, several of the police officers and security guards assigned to the high school speak with concern and compassion about the students they've come to know while on duty. There's no reason to doubt their sincerity. But it's no contradiction to say that the police as an institution--not to mention quite a few uncompassionate cops as individuals--are the enemies of these young men and women, and any hopes they have for the future.

The statistics tell what it means for a Black youth to get caught up in the criminal justice system. Left-wing journalist Paul Street cites Chicago Reporter research for the following claim: For every African American enrolled in a university in Illinois, there are 2.5 Blacks in prison or jail or on parole.

Overall, one in five Black male residents of Cook County in their 20s are under the control of the criminal justice system in some way, whether behind bars or on parole. In the poorest neighborhoods, the numbers are worse. The North Lawndale Employment Network on the city's West Side--another neighborhood where gun violence is high--estimates that more than 70 percent of men from the neighborhood between the ages of 18 and 45 have a criminal record.

Michelle Alexander's best-selling book The New Jim Crow has helped dramatize the lifelong consequences of arrest, conviction and incarceration:

Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination--employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service--are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.

For those who listened to the This American Life show, it's gut-wrenching to realize that this fate will likely befall Devonte, the Harper High School junior who figures prominently.

NPR reporter Alex Kotlowitz follows Devonte's story over several months as he deals--thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the school's social workers--with the crippling guilt of having killed his younger brother in a gun accident. Devonte seems to be making a halting and hard-won recovery, until tragedy strikes in another form: he is arrested by police on a gun possession charge. This throws him back into the system--instead of graduation from high school, he faces the better part of two years in prison.

Stories like these bring home the same conclusion as the statistics collected by Michelle Alexander: The police and the criminal justice system aren't the solution to the nightmare of violence and death that afflicts communities like West Englewood. They're another part of the problem.

Apartheid schools

It goes so completely without saying that I'm not sure This American Life actually did say it, but Harper High School is virtually all Black. Almost 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools, the Harper student population is over 98 percent African American.

Because of statistics like this, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has been compared to apartheid in South Africa under white minority rule.

According to a 2012 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, more than 70 percent of Black students in CPS attend a school where 90 percent or more of the student population is Black, Latino or another minority group. Almost half of African American students attend schools that are 99 percent or more minority students. By that measure, Chicago has the highest level of extreme school segregation of any major city.

Segregation in the schools, of course, follows segregation in the neighborhoods. Two-thirds of Black Chicagoans live in communities that are at least 80 percent African American, and over half--55 percent--live in 21 communities where the aggregate population is 96 percent Black, according to a Chicago Reader report.

Like in the days of the old Jim Crow, schools may be separate in Chicago, but they aren't equal. The CPS officialdom--which answers directly to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, like Richard Daley before him--has consistently funneled money and resources to a handful of top-performing elementary and high schools. One-quarter of the CPS students in these selective enrollment and magnet schools during the 2012-13 school year are white--even though whites are only 9 percent of CPS students overall.

When the selective enrollment schools need funding for capital improvements, they get it. According to a Roosevelt University report cited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, selective enrollment schools are 1 percent of the CPS system, but received 24 percent of the money that went into construction and repair from the mayoral-controlled Tax Increment Financing system.

Racial disparities are evident in many other ways:

Of the 160 schools that don't have libraries, 140 are located south of North Avenue, the street that marks the boundary of the worst concentrations of poverty on the West and South sides.

As the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) pointed out in its manifesto published before last fall's strike, The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, minority students are disciplined in CPS schools at a vastly higher rate, and the gap has only grown. During the 2009-10 school year, one out of every four Black students across CPS was suspended at some point--compared to fewer than 4 percent of white students.

And then there are the school closings. This winter, CPS announced a preliminary list of 129 elementary schools--over one-quarter of the total in the system--that could be shut down for the excuse of "underutilization." Almost all of the 129 are in Black or Latino neighborhoods.

Harper High School was on such a list a few years back when it became the first CPS school to go through "turnaround"--under which the entire staff, teachers included, of schools deemed to be "underperforming" is fired and required to reapply. Most aren't rehired.

Teachers bitterly oppose "turnarounds" for obvious reasons--they lose their jobs based on the judgment of unaccountable administrators for factors that are beyond their control.

Students and parents have also spoken out against turnarounds. When Piccolo Elementary on the West Side was slated for turnaround last year, Latrice Watkins, a Piccolo parent and head of the Local School Council, joined an occupation to try to save the school. "These are teachers and staff [the students] grew up with," she said in an interview. "They have relationships with the cafeteria staff and the custodians and the teachers. We don't want them replaced with people right out of college who aren't connected to the community."

Even some CPS officials question the strategy. In an interview for the This American Life show, the operations manager at Harper High School said that during his 15 years in CPS, he'd seen the turnaround strategy, though known by other names, used at other schools, and it never worked.

He said he thought it had worked at Harper--but the reason he gave was telling: the school got millions of dollars in extra funding. As a result, in the first year of turnaround, there were "four assistant principals, reduced class sizes...[and] support staff, social workers and counselors, in numbers that other schools only dream of," This American Life reported.

But that extra money has been reduced with each recent school year--and soon, it will disappear entirely. When that happens, there will be painful cuts at Harper, including layoffs of approximately 10 percent of the staff.

Among the victims will be the two social workers at the heart of the This American Life program. After two hours of hearing them describe how they do everything possible in an impossible situation, my image is of them holding together the lives of several dozen students with their bare hands. But at the end of this school year, one of them will be gone from Harper, and the other will come back to work part time.

THERE'S much, much more to say about any of these subjects, and plenty of other subjects that haven't even come up.

Like the history of West Englewood. Through the first half of the 20th century, it was an immigrant neighborhood, 98 percent white as of 1930 and many of its residents foreign-born. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities like Chicago started to change that, but in the 1960s, Blacks were still a minority in the area. About a mile due west of Harper High School today, Martin Luther King marched in Marquette Park in 1966 as part of his campaign to take the struggle against housing segregation north--and was nearly killed by a racist mob.

But the 1970s and '80s completed the demographic transition. By 1990, West Englewood was 98 percent Black, and the closure of the nearby stockyards and loss of railroad jobs had dealt a hammer blow to the economic base of the neighborhood.

This American Life has cast a light on the human casualties of such impersonal social and economic factors. Its program on Harper High School is a powerful indictment of a society that claims to care about peace and prosperity and justice--but tolerates a world where so many people endure the opposite.

This story should fire our determination to struggle for a different world--one that's cleansed of violence, oppression and injustice.

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