The Social Trends Driving American Gangs and Gun Violence

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I am sorry to keep bringing this back to Chicago, but you sort of just baited me. I'm reading The Making of the Second Ghetto right now, and I have to ask -- given how racially segregated the violence in Chicago is, is there any connection between public policy in Chicago and gun violence?

I'm glad that you are offering some props to Making of the Second Ghetto. It's an excellent book. My own university played an ambiguous role in this story. We play a much more positive role now.

You ask the broad question: is there any connection between public policy in Chicago and gun violence? That's a tough one to answer with any generality. It is certainly true that our high rates of poverty, segregation, and pervasive education failure reflect the legacy of failed public policies and discrimination.

Some of these policies go back a long way. The warehousing of African-American families in public housing and overt discrimination within Chicago Public Schools still cast long shadows. (Kathy Neckerman's Schools Betrayed describes the history of Chicago Public Schools.) Chicago is sometimes called the City That Works, a backhanded tribute to the political machine that dominated city politics for decades. In so many basic respects, the City didn't work for many people here.

Some of this problematic legacy stems from a more recent past. Police need active community cooperation to solve many crimes. Episodes such as the Jon Burge case really hurt that effort. Several years ago, I spoke with Louis Farrakan about youth crime issues. He offered the thought that nothing happened at Abu Ghraib that hadn't happened in station-house basements at CPD. These abuses occurred in a different time. Their effects linger.

Chicago's political economy -- like that of many cities -- channels resources to the most organized and prosperous neighborhoods. That's life in urban America. Every mayor in America -- whatever his or her ideology -- must cater to mobile affluent families and firms that support the tax base and a city's economic life. If we aren't careful, the end result can be to channel disproportionate police manpower, disproportionate educational, recreation, and other investments to upscale communities rather than to the places that need these resources the most. This would be a disaster -- particularly in a time of limited federal support for urban job programs and other supports we desperately need.

To its credit, CPD has instituted processes such as Comstat that counter this political inertia. The "cops on the dots" approach holds everyone accountable to place the police where crimes actually occur. Frank Zimring's book, The City that Became Safe, noted the same democratizing pattern in New York. New York's crime rate went down in its toughest community. One reason for that was the real improvement in police protection for these places.

Two other issues deserve mention. Failed national housing policies have really hammered Cook County's African-American communities. The same heavily-segregated African-American communities that top the homicide statistics dominate the list of communities checker-boarded with foreclosed or abandoned properties. It's hard to stabilize a community to address crime when this is the economic reality. I myself live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood within the south suburbs. Many houses on our neighborhood stand empty or are in various stages of foreclosure. It wouldn't surprise me if median household wealth among African Americans here has gone negative.

We send out many other large and small messages that marginalize young men and women of color. A friend of mine runs a sports intervention for low-income youth. He noted something I had never noticed, hidden in plain sight. Milennium Park and its surroundings-- genuinely beautiful triumphs of Mayor Daley's tenure - include wonderful gardens, tennis courts, an ice-skating rink. They don't include a single basketball court. The Chicago Parks District website indicate no outdoor basketball courts in the Loop area.

Young couples of every income and color stroll to Buckingham Fountain and its environs. By and large, though, this is pretty upscale turf. Few amenities are designed to draw minority teenagers down to the Loop.

I do want to ask you about some cultural matters.

What shall we make of the tougher edges of hip-hop and pop culture consumed by young people? One can over-react to this. Much of the raunchiness of hip-hop is a reflection rather than a cause of the tough conditions in urban life. Still, I do worry that American youth are fed some pretty toxic messages about gender, violence, and other matters. I've always thought that immigrants and outsiders enjoy a real advantage because they are a bit more insulated from the dreck of American youth culture.

It's not crazy to worry that African-American and Latino youth are particularly harmed by this stuff. The youth workers I know are quite concerned, for example, when rappers such as Chief Keef clown around with guns on video.

As a parent and as a social commentator, how do you think about these issues? Are they overblown? Is there some sensible sense that avoids Tipper-Gore-style prudishness but that also avoids naïve cultural complacency?

So glad you asked this question -- especially given my full-throated endorsement of Kendrick Lamar. I don't think they're overblown, so much as I think they're misunderstood. I can't really vouch for Chief Keef. I haven't given him a good listen. But one major mistake that I think people make with hip-hop -- and perhaps with pop culture at large -- is that they tend to think of it as promoting certain values. It's easy to make that assumption given the actual lyrics which do involve exulting the life of the urban outlaw and all its attendant aspects. Mastering and dispensing violence is a large part of that. But I think it's worth asking, "Why do kids listen to violent hip-hop?" I highly doubt the answer is "To find an applicable value system." As someone who had NWA's first album, and gas fond memories of the Geto Boys, I would suggest that what the kids go there for -- beyond the beat of the music -- is fantasy.

I don't think hip-hop so much reflects these violent neighborhoods, as it serves as therapy for the young boys who live in them. It offers a vicarious world where every puerile desire is instantly met. If you listen really closely to music, you will hear it pulsing with teenage insecurity and the angst of the youth. In hip-hop, young people are able to express sentiments and feelings, many of them negative, which they can't really express elsewhere. Living, from the time you are born, with the threat of existential violence is stressful. Stress leads to anger and fear. We don't generally express our anger and fear by saying, "I love the world" or "I pray for an end to world hunger." Living around violence might make you say those things. But the stress of it more often will probably leave you with a string of curse words on your tongue. Moreover, it might even make you want to convert all of those negative feelings into a persona which can't be killed by other males, which never feels rejection from females, and is generally free to engage all its hedonistic desires.

I think that's right. Of course, much of the critique of hip-hop confuses effects for causes here. The nihilism in the music stems from the nihilistic real-world environment, not the other way around. There's also certain troubling feedback loop, whereby the music you turn to for release and otherwise-forbidden expression of your reality may be psychically problematic. Adults figured out a long time ago that there's a buck to be made on MTV or BET from calibrated excesses that hit the lowest common denominator in youth culture. You can make more money hawking sex and violence than you can by depicting what happens two years after the bullets go flying, when a shooter sits in an 8x12 cage, and the victim is left wearing a colostomy bag.

I have to say, I'm 37 now. And there's certainly stuff I can't listen to. But when I was in the target age rage I was boiling over with angst. Hip-hop was where I went to work it out. My son listens to a lot of bad music that does the same for him. I would never stop him from doing that. But I do try to engage him. I'll tell you a story: When I was 14 I had an NWA album which included a song about oral sex which was really degrading to women. I was listening to it in my Walkman one day in the car, while my dad was driving. He asked what I was listening to and then told me to put it in the tape-deck. I reluctantly did this. We listened and then he gave me a long forceful talk about how women should be regarded. But more importantly, he handed the tape back to me. He left me with a choice and the choice wasn't over where to get my values from, it was over what fantasies I would countenance and what fantasies I wouldn't.

This is a great story, which underscores (among other things) the role of the actual adult human beings in kids' lives. We're the ones who ignore, moderate, or aggravate whatever broader influences reach our kids from other places. As I mentioned, I have two daughters, age 18 and age 16. I hate to think that their boyfriends and future marriage partners are learning about women from music videos or the Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue. Yet what really matters is what these young men hear and see among the adults around them.

My great fear is for kids who just don't have an adult around them to show the way.

Again as I mentioned, we recently performed a successful randomized trial for an intervention called "Becoming a Man, Sports Edition." This program is fielded by two local nonprofits, Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago. It features once-per-week group sessions with well-trained adult mentors and coaches for after-school sports programming. We found that the program significantly reduced violent offending, and significantly improved school engagement. Just today, Mayor Emanuel is announcing $2 million in city funds to expand this program.

We on the research team have been struck by one simple question: Why is this rather modest, non-intensive intervention so effective? There are many reasons. But the most basic is that young men in tough Chicago neighborhoods have such limited access to appealing and engaged adult men who can help them navigate the tough world in which they live.

I think it's worth asking whether we as adults are any different than our kids. America consumes massive amounts of pornography. Why? Isn't a some of this about male frustration at having to actually "work" for the sexual attention of women? Porn constructs a world where no work is needed. It's all right there. If we know broad swaths of men seek out such fantasies, why do expect kids -- laboring under much more stressful circumstances -- to be different?

Yes indeed. I would also note that the same market actors who hawk alcohol and tobacco on 67thh street in Chicago are only too happy to market "titles do not show up on your hotel bill" films eighty streets uptown on Michigan Avenue near the fancy convention spots. Is pornography actively harmful? I don't know. I certainly hope the young men in Evanston and Hyde Park have some adult men showing them the way, too.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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