Obama's Chicago Speech Can't Address Gun Violence Unless It Takes On Race

Academic research long ago showed that poverty and institutional racism are at the root of urban crime. Will the president have the courage to say so? 

Drum majorettes from King College Prep attend the funeral of their classmate Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago. (Reuters)

One of the iconic moments of late Bush-era America came when Kanye West wandered off script at a Hurricane Katrina telethon and boldly proclaimed, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Despite some obvious political and personal differences between Bush and Barack Obama, the current president has also been criticized for taking black supporters for granted and failing to advance a policy agenda that effectively combats black suffering.

But as the nation's gun-violence crisis continued this week, President Obama is pushing back on those critics. On Tuesday, he invoked slain Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton during the State of the Union Address. Though brief, the passage in the speech was an implicit public affirmation that black lives lost to gun violence -- so often invisible to the national media -- matter just as much as white victims. Obama's insistence that Pendleton's parents "deserve a vote" on gun policy is a fierce moral appeal to the conscience of legislators and civil society.

Obama has a chance to reinforce and build on that when he travels to Chicago today to deliver a speech on urban gun violence. But the speech won't realize its full potential or leave a lasting legacy if the president doesn't directly address race and condemn systemic racial oppression in a manner we have not yet heard from him.

A good place to start would be acknowledging he wouldn't be speaking in Chicago if not for the efforts of community organizer Aisha Truss-Miller and the Black Youth Project, a University of Chicago-based initiative focused on civic engagement among young black Chicagoans. The BYP petitioned Obama to travel to Chicago and address gun violence, gathering more than 45,000 signatures in two weeks. As Professors Cathy Cohen and Eddie Glaude noted on Twitter, the speech's existence is a victory for young people of color from Chicago and proof that Obama will respond to the voices of marginalized Americans.

There is a belief -- usually implicit and unspoken -- in the response to mass shootings involving white victims, an idea that they are more worthy of mourning, national outrage, and legislative action. The tragedies in Aurora, Newtown, and other white neighborhoods were earth-shattering. But gun violence claims scores of no-less-innocent young people each year in America's forgotten urban neighborhoods -- those plagued by inadequate schools, concentrated poverty, and unemployment. Between 1979 and 2009, gun deaths among white children and teens decreased by 44 percent, while the rates for black children and teens increased by 30 percent. These victims have failed to register on the national moral radar, and that's why it was so important to recognize the Pendleton family in his address. Obama need not shed tears or deliver the same sort of eulogy he did in Newtown, but he should conjure the same patriotism and empathy, reaffirming his statement that "these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children."

Presented by

Michael P. Jeffries is an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of  Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.

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