Since writing “Wanted: A President Who Can End the War in Chicago” about the city’s homicide rates exceeding a war zone and pointing to a national emergency, my thoughts have centered on Chicago’s youth. My fear is that we, their fellow citizens and the media, are sending them a very dangerous message: “we don’t care what happens to you.”
Like millions of other Americans, Chicago’s youth face the “risks” associated with poverty daily. Born into disenfranchised urban communities that are crime-ridden and drug-infested, the mounting odds have been stacked against them. The Chicago Teachers Union’s strike that has left 400,000 Chicago public school students without teachers doesn’t make the circumstances any better for them.
Systemic failures, particularly a lack of quality education and viable employment opportunities, are major contributors to the violence plaguing the city. Yet, parents are often the ones who are blamed.
Local support systems are obviously the best equipped to address these problems. Problems that aren’t limited to social conditions. Columbia College’s Columbia Links writing program in Chicago, for example, is trying to help high school students deal with the psychological and emotional trauma associated with rampant violence, according to the Sun Times. Students from the program are now seeking to share a compilation of their stories, “Don’t Shoot. I Want to Grow Up,” with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCartthy.
Their fears are legitimate. August was Chicago’s deadliest month with 55 recorded homicides. The violence has gotten so bad that Mayor Emanuel is now seeking federal help via U.S. marshals and FBI, DEA, and ATF agents to curtail violence in the West and South sides of Chicago.
However, the mainstream media’s blatant disregard for the alarming murder rates in President Obama’s hometown were crystallized when the recent Empire State Building mass shooting consumed the media’s attention. Nineteen people were shot in Chicago within that same 24-hour period, but news coverage heavily focused on the Empire State. What kind of message does that send?
Think Progress made a compelling argument that affluent white news editors may be having a hard time relating to African-American and Hispanic residents of Chicago whose median household income is far less than their own.There’s no getting around it; race and class are major factors in determining why some mass shootings matter and others don’t.
When the six-month anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman came and went on Aug. 26, I couldn’t help but think about Chicago’s youth. I was reminded of a question recently posed by Rev. Jesse Jackson at a conference: Why isn’t the nation galvanizing for youth in Chicago as they did in protest of Zimmerman killing Martin?
Countless explanations could be offered, including apathy toward black-on-black violence in contrast to collective outrage over “racialized murders.” The response I offered to Rev. Jackson is that the media often dictates what we do and don’t have a sense of urgency about. If the media repeatedly tells us something (like a 17-year-old black male dying at the hands of a white neighborhood watchman) matters, then we’ll internalize that and respond accordingly.
But, as someone who has been behind the scenes of mainstream and independent media outlets for years, I know the other side of that argument as well. Today’s sound bite driven, 12 hours of shelf life media world rarely brings forth fresh news. It instead recycles what’s already been said, feeding off of what you say is important to you. What reporters inform you about and columnists offer you an opinion on is heavily determined by Google search engine trends, blogosphere headlines and popular culture appeal.
Put simply — if you tell us it matters to you enough times, then we pay attention. If you don’t get bored reading about it, then we won’t stop writing about it. Media coverage is a supply and demand market heavily driven by the consumer.
This isn’t to downplay the corporatization of information exchange but let’s be honest — who wants to hear about youth homicides and gang retaliation all the time? Would you rather read about Chicago’s “bloody summer” after a long, hard day at work or seek out entertainment escapism? Oftentimes, the media isn’t reporting on matters like the murder rates in Chicago, because they know the public has grown tired of hearing about it.
In the end, Chicago is just one city among many losing its young people to gun violence. Just like Trayvon Martin was one black male among the countless others who will die this year. But if the murder of one young man was important enough to spark a national (and international) moment of outrage, why aren’t the hundreds dying in the streets of Chicago important enough? What’s stopping us from mobilizing on their behalf? How many of them will have to die before we care enough to speak out and do something to stop it?
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .