How Bad Is Violence in Chicago? Depends on Your Race

In America's most segregated city, some communities live with security, others in constant fear of violent crime.
Protesters demand adult trauma care at the University of Chicago Medical Center (Sarah Jane Rhee)

After hearing about the Chicago shooting last week in which 13 were injured in Cornell Square Park, including a three-year-old, I and writer Mikki Kendall, both Chicago residents, had very different reactions.  It’s "not just the park incident," Kendall told me by email. "20 people were shot this weekend. People are being shot almost daily. And I have a 14 year-old son who can't go to the McDonald's in Hyde Park at lunch because the school has noticed an uptick in crime at that location."

I was depressed and horrified, too — but depressed and horrified in the way that you are when you hear about gun violence anywhere. Unlike Kendall, I wasn't directly concerned about the safety of my family.

Based on our reactions, you'd think that Kendall lived much closer to the shooting than I do. But that's not the case. In fact, we're both in Hyde Park, about 4 miles away from where it occurred on the city's South Side. I can walk to the McDonald's she mentioned.

So why does Kendall feel personally targeted and I don't? Well, Kendall is black and grew up here; I'm white, and didn't.

In other words, welcome to Chicago, where segregation is almost a civic art form. Redlining has had a massive impact on the city, which despite improvements remains the most segregated in the nation. Segregation is so ingrained, and so much taken for granted, that people, or at least white people, don't even notice it. A couple months ago, for example, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote an editorial in which he argued that, based on murders by population, Chicago isn't actually all that violent a city. And he's sort of right. Chicago can be thought of as a bunch of different cities, and some of them are quite safe. Unfortunately, some of them aren't. And a lot of effort goes into making sure that the folks who have to live in the less safe parts of Chicago don't trouble the sleep of the folks in the safe areas.

Hyde Park, the neighborhood around the University of Chicago where Kendall and I live, is a particularly instructive example. Way back in 1952, the wife of a University of Chicago faculty member was assaulted near campus. The university was stung into action, and began to invest heavily in a private security force. It also pushed for urban renewal, in some cases using private police officers to investigate criminal activity in given buildings in order to get the property foreclosed and torn down. Today, the UCPD is, as the university told me in a statement, "a highly professional police force," and one of the largest private security forces in the country. Hyde Park "remains one of the safest neighborhoods in the city," according to the statement sent to me by the University, and, "All of the neighborhoods patrolled by the University of Chicago benefit from the extra service."

Meanwhile, our neighbors nearby continue to get shot, and the university hospital, which does have a pediatric trauma unit, ceased providing trauma care for adults in 1988.  In fact, in January of this year, the UCPD got some unfavorable press for having allegedly shoved around protestors at the university’s hospital who were demanding an adult trauma center for the South Side. Then, in March of this year, a  plainclothes officer from the UCPD was discovered trying to infiltrate another protest.  In the first case, an independent report exonerated the UPCD of wrongdoing, and in the second placed blame on a commanding officer who was fired.

Nonetheless, the multiple police forces in Hyde Park don't necessarily make Kendall feel safer. Instead, as she said to me, they seem to "give a false sense of security to white people, and act as a threat to POC [people of color] who live in the area." Kendall was more distressed than me because she's been in the neighborhood long enough to feel at a gut level that "the little bubble of gentrification that U of C is trying to create isn't bullet-proof." And she's also more distressed because, despite CPD and UCPD insistence to the contrary, from her perspective as someone who's lived all over the South Side, that bubble is in part constructed by policing 14-year-old black boys like her son.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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