President Obama will go to Chicago this Friday to address the persistent problem of gun violence. The homicide rate in Chicago rivals
the death rate in war zones, and many want the president to shift the discourse beyond safe sound bites and offer real talk to the residents of this city where he launched his political career as a community organizer.
Among them is Cathy Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and founder of The Black Youth Project.
“We are hoping that the president will detail a plan of action to help stem the violence,” Cohen says.
“This plan has to address many of the underlying factors and cannot rely on just policing and incarcerating black and Latino youth. We want the president to remind the country of the moral worth of black and Latino young people and to call for the country to devote the resources necessary to end the violence and provide opportunities for these young people and their communities.”
Founded in 2005, Cohen’s Black Youth Project (BYP) provides an online space for young people of color to speak, uncensored, about the issues affecting them. Considered one of the most respected organizations advocating for young African Americans, BYP launched a Change.org petition asking President Obama to speak out against gun violence that garnered more than 45,000 signatures. BYP also produces research on black youth at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.
The underlying factors Cohen identifies as root causes of Chicago’s alarming murder rates are the underperformance of black schools, the unemployment of black youth, and what Cohen calls “the fractured nature of gangs in the city into smaller groups and the violent culture that surrounds them.”
Cohen also identifies the proliferation of illegal guns in Chicago’s communities of color, despite the strict gun laws in place there. These problems, systemic and inter-generational, are rooted in the soil of racism and classism and run so deep that they are considered impossible to yank from America’s garden. These problems are thought of like weeds that might be pulled away for one season but that reoccur every spring. The problem of the schools?: An overwhelming behemoth. One school is difficult enough to improve; trying to radically change and thus improve a school system is impossible – and political suicide.
The problem of unemployment?: Too closely related to the unfixable schools, statistically off the charts in communities where people were forced to work through the generations for hundreds of years for nothing, and an increasing problem in working class suburban communities where votes are essential to elected officials with aspirations to higher office at the federal level.
The problem of guns?: Too closely related to the schools and unemployment. An issue that ignites a raging public discourse only when the victims are white; an issue that places any elected official directly in the line of fire of the NRA. Americans have more often than not given up on these problems – and they have more often than not given up on the children directly impacted by them, too.
Ironically, even cruelly, children growing in the garden strangled by these weeds are expected to nevertheless compete with these weeds, and grow, even thrive, despite them. Ranked against children growing in gardens that are almost entirely weed-free, where an army of news reporters and psychologists and hang-wringing ordinary folk swoop in to dig and yank and tear those weeds away as best they can whenever one is found, our black and brown children are more likely than not sprayed with fix-it concoctions that often kill the spirit of the child while the weed itself only forms a resistance, gets stronger, grows roots that stretch even deeper.
Too few Americans seem to realize that the gardens overwhelmed by weeds are their gardens, too. Too few Americans seem to claim the children growing in them as their children, too.
“While we understand the instinct to blame young people and their ‘bad’ decisions for the gun violence experienced in Chicago,” Cohen says, “ the truth is we all have some responsibility for what is going on in Chicago. What we mean is that as a country we have allowed many black youth to go to subpar schools where there is little chance of securing the upward mobility promised in the American dream. We have watched as far too many neighborhoods have been decimated, marked by high unemployment, increasing poverty, and disproportionate incarceration. And while we each have tried to hold on to the possibility of a better future for our own children, we have often silently allowed that possibility to be foreclosed for other young people.
“We at the BYP,” Cohen continues, “believe that all young people deserve an equal chance to succeed and right now far too many Black youth do not have that equal chance. And while some might feel more secure by locking up those ‘bad’ people perpetrating violence, our 20 year experiment with excessive incarceration in black and Latino communities has shown that investing in policing and incarceration is not the answer.”
Ordinary Americans have been on the frontlines of creating radical change that transforms communities, improves the nation, and inspires people across the globe. We’ve changed whole systems of control and domination, so folk could begin to imagine a better way to be in this world. Let’s honor that American legacy and refuse to believe that the nation that elected the first African American president to two terms could neglect the young people throughout this country who look just like him. Let’s refuse to believe that the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, following on the heels of the murder of Trayvon Martin, rooted in the murder of Emmett Till, will not compel Middle America to rise and stand and act. Let’s create a way for suburbanites and rural dwellers to work with city folk, city folk who have labored to solve the problem of violence in their communities through the generations, but have lacked the support, the fervent, zealous determination on the part of people who are not their neighbors, to get the job done.
As Cohen knows after years of grassroots advocacy and action, “Politicians in Washington can both direct attention to these issues and devote resources to supporting programs that we know are effective in stemming the violence.”
President Obama could be – and should be – the shining leader who transforms whole communities and alters our collective sense of what is possible in places where children are shot more frequently than soldiers. Let’s hope his Chicago speech this Friday truly elevates the public discourse and helps get us all to a better America, together.
Eisa Ulen is the author of “Crystelle Mourning”, a novel that examines the impact of gun violence on women and calls for healing in the African American community. You may contact her online at EisaUlen.com or on Twitter @EisaUlen.
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