The Social Trends Driving American Gangs and Gun Violence

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Learning from University of Chicago Crime Lab's Harold Pollack, a man who helped make the misuse of firearms a public health issue

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Outside the funeral for Hadiya Pendleton, the Obama inauguration performer killed by a gunman in a Chicago park on January 29 (John Gress/Reuters)

Like everyone, we at The Atlantic have spent the weeks since Newtown thinking about the role of guns in America. In our ongoing effort to broaden the conversation, I spent some time talking to Professor Harold Pollack, who co-directs the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. Pollack is one of the foremost voices on gun violence from a public health perspective. Pollack and his colleagues at the Crime Lab have done yeoman's work in helping us understand how guns end up on the streets of cities like Chicago, and how precisely they tend to be used.


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hi, Harold. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us over here at The Atlantic. We've had several off-line conversations which have been illuminating to me. I greatly appreciate your willingness to take some time to do this for the Horde, as we say on the blog.

Harold Pollack: It's great to correspond with you, Ta-Nehisi, regarding what can actually be done to reduce gun violence. I'm a big fan of your work. I should mention by way of self-introduction that I am a public health researcher at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Here in Chicago, we have become the focus of much national attention because we had our 500th homicide [of the year in 2012]. We're sometimes called the nation's murder capital -- though this mainly reflects the fact that we are a big city. We're more dangerous than L.A. or New York, but we're actually in the middle of the pack when it comes to homicide rates. Still, we're dangerous enough. The declining homicide rates in many prosperous and middle-class neighborhoods casts a harsh light on the high rates facing African-American (and to a lesser-extent) Latino young men on the city's south and west sides. Lots to talk about. I am looking forward to talking. So let's get to it.

I don't know if I've told you how I come to this issue, but I should say for everyone reading this that I am from Baltimore -- the West Side, as we used to call it. I came of age in the late 1980s and early 90s, a period in which violence spiked in our cities. I don't know if Chicago today is as bad as it was in, say, 1988, but this was a period of deep fear for everyone in the black communities of Baltimore. And the fear was everywhere.

It changed how we addressed our parents. It changed how we addressed each other. It changed our music. The violence put rules in place that often look strange to the rest of the country. For instance, the mask of hyper-machismo and invulnerability -- the ice-grill, as we used to say -- looks strange, until you've lived in a place where that mask is the only power you have to effect a modicum of safety.

I'm in my late 40s. I was a typical suburban kid graduating high school outside New York. It wasn't as tough for me as it was on the west side of Baltimore, but crime certainly touched my life. On one occasion, I was in Washington Heights on my way to an AP class at Columbia University. A group of middle-school or early-high-school kids jumped me in the subway station, and they attempted to wrest away my watch. My high school sweetheart had just given it to me; I didn't want to give it up. So a kid grabbed me by the hair and smashed my head against the concrete floor until I finally relented. As you know, my cousin was beaten to death by two teenage house burglars a few years later.

So I remember very well both the fear and the anger that accompanies one's sense of physical vulnerability. Of course this anger often comes with a race/ethnic/class tinge that poisons so much of what we are trying to do in revitalizing urban America.

It's odd. I sometimes travel in some pretty tough neighborhoods, and it's been maybe 20 years since someone has laid an unfriendly hand on me. The gray hair seems to put me in a different category. The kids we encounter are sometimes a bit struck that one can be a shrimpy, nerdy guy and be a successful adult man. That option doesn't seem as open to them.

I remember when Allen Iverson came into the NBA and people could not understand why he walked around with twenty dudes. I totally understood, and I suspect a lot of black males did too. But one thing that's become clear to me, and that I've tried to grapple with in my blogging, is that cultural practices that offer some protection in one place are often quite harmful in another. Iverson's clique may have saved him countless times in Virginia Beach. But in that broader world, they sometimes empowered his worst urges. So much of my work is about how young black males negotiate violence, and how those negotiations affect them when they interact with the broader world.

I get a sense of that when I talk with young men in Chicago who participate in violence prevention efforts. Kids are wearing that ice-grill for some very real reasons in their world. It's just a tough assignment to be a 17-year-old kid in urban America.

We often hear some version of this story: "Dr. Pollack, I'm so glad you are doing this. There are too many guns, too much fighting out here. My friend was shot. But you have to know something: If some guy gets in my face in the hallway, I'm going to have to kick his ass because I can't afford to allow anyone to mess with me."

Your comments are right on the money that kids' approaches can be protective in one context, but quite harmful in another. If another 17-year-old gets in your face, you might have to be tough. If that's your automatic response, things won't go well when your 11th grade English teacher gets into your face over a missing assignment.

The academic literature also suggests that aggression-prone kids aren't very good at deciphering the unspoken intentions of other people. Psychologists speak of "hostile intention attribution bias," whereby youth interpret other people's ambiguous behavior as more hostile and more threatening than it actually is.

Some of the best interventions help kids with social-emotional and self-regulation skills so that they can deal more safely and productively with each other and with adult authority figures. We've found in randomized trials that such interventions can reduce violent offending. But you can't tell kids "Don't fight." That's not realistic in their world.

I do believe that kids are exposed to some pretty toxic messages about adult masculinity. Their lack of a decent roadmap is reinforced by crummy pop culture from Chief Keef to video games to BET. Much more important, though, many of these kids don't have adult men in their everyday lives available to show them how it's done. One could write 500 Ph.D. dissertations about how hip-hop or pornography mis-socializes young men in their relationships with women. I'm not thrilled about some of what the kids are listening to or viewing. Yet the Tipper-Gore-style anxieties seem misdirected. Media dreck is much less important than the ways youth observe adult men in their lives actually treat women. Much of the hip-hop that adults dislike reflects kids' real experiences. It isn't pretty to hear, but what's coming through people's ear-buds isn't the real problem.

Why Chicago? What, specifically, do we see in the history of the city, in its style of governance, in its organization of neighborhoods, in its geography, in its policing which makes it different from New York City? It is one thing to note the high homicide rate. But why?

Why Chicago? There's no simple answer.

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I should say at the outset that we are hardly the most dangerous city in America. We're in the middle of the pack for large cities. There's nothing happening here that people in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, or Milwaukee aren't seeing. Our homicide rate is also below what it was 5, 10, 15, or 20 years ago (see the graph). But you can see that our homicide rate is a bit over half what it was in the early 1990s. The uptick in 2012 partly reflected random factors such as high homicide rates linked with warm weather during the early months of the year.

We still face some serious challenges. We have many more guns on the street than New York does. Per capita, CPD seizes roughly six times the guns that NYPD does.

My Crime Lab colleagues are exploring opportunities to disrupt underground gun markets. We believe that there are some real opportunities to deter straw purchasers, identify corrupt gun sellers, and more, Obviously, more work needs to be done there.

New York may be a bit ahead of Chicago in implementing innovative law enforcement strategies. Our new police superintendent is implementing some of these strategies now, and he seems on the right track. He bears some historical burdens, including such episodes as the Jon Burge police misconduct cases.

Chicago also has a pretty entrenched set of gang issues -- which is sometimes a factor in youths' gaining access to lethal weapons. Law enforcement has done a pretty good job in recent years of decapitating the major criminal organizations. Ironically, this creates new risks of violence. When once we had hierarchical organizations with a strong stake in avoiding mayhem, we now have a set of much more fractionated cliques that feud with each other and have less of a stake in containing violence.

And, of course, we have a highly segregated city with a tough history of educational failure, and deep poverty. This history was exemplified by high-rise projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes, which so scarred the landscape along highway 94. Many of these high-rises have been torn down. I believe this had to be done. It also created new challenges. I haven't seen solid numbers on this. It's clear that the relocation of so many low-income families has disrupted gang boundaries and has stressed neighborhoods within Chicago and within the collar communities just beyond the city line.

We can't use these fundamental factors as an excuse to wait in reducing crime. Indeed, crime reduction is essential to address business development and improved educational opportunities in our toughest neighborhoods. I take some heart from New York's experience. New York witnessed deep crime reductions in very poor neighborhoods that experienced many of the same economic and educational problems we see in Chicago.

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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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