Chicago Protesters Had Good Reasons to Be Upset Long Before Laquan McDonald

by Benjamin Studebaker

In Chicago, people are taking to the streets in response to the shooting of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke, apparently for brandishing a knife and refusing to put it down when asked to do so:

Van Dyke has been charged with first degree murder. So far, the demonstrations have been peaceful and riots have not broken out. In the wake of a horrible incident like this, it’s important for us to remember that racism goes well beyond individual killings–there has long been statistical data documenting systemic racial inequalities in Chicago. These statistics don’t get as much attention from the media and from protesters because they’re not as emotionally gripping as a killing, but the suffering they demonstrate is every bit as real and much greater in scope.

In August 2014, the Chicago Tribune published these statistics, which should have sparked protests and policy change but were instead ignored by the public because they did not come accompanied by a horrible video of someone getting killed:

As you can see, this shows clear evidence that black and Hispanic drivers are searched far more than their white counterparts even though it is much less likely that contraband will be found when they are searched. This is clear evidence of racist police practices, and the Chicago police are considerably worse than Illinois as a whole. The Tribune illustrated the difference this way:

The Chicago police were even more racist in 2009, but they are still pretty racist now, and there is a lot of room for improvement. Blacks account for 1/3rd of Chicago’s population but 2/3rds of the people killed by Chicago police are black. Chicago is the fourth worst city in the country for police killings per capita, with a rate of 2.57 killings per 100,000 residents. Only police departments in Dallas (2.7), Philadelphia (3.48), and Phoenix (3.77) kill more of their own citizens per capita.

The racial problems in Chicago go much deeper than police violence. We tend to focus on police violence because once again, individual killings have shock emotional value, but the racism that does the most damage to people’s everyday lives is economic in nature. Inequality in Chicago has been rising continuously since the 1970’s, as some neighborhoods have become extraordinarily affluent while others have been left behind:

The differences between the very poorest and very richest areas is especially stark:

Many people claim that racial inequalities have improved since the civil rights movement, but in Chicago most racial disparities have only gotten worse since 1960. Blacks experience a higher poverty rate now than they did then and a higher unemployment rate. In 1960, the median black family made 62% of of the income the median white family made. Today it’s about 50%:

Crime and violence in Chicago are driven by widening inequality and deepening poverty. When poverty is deep, both parents in a household have to work to generate sufficient income. When unemployment is high, one or both parents may not be able to find that work. Desperation pushes people into crime, and when those people are incarcerated, often on petty drug charges, single parents are left to work multiple jobs to try to keep things afloat. The financial stress this places on families often results in divorces, separations, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Because their parents are working all the time or in prison, children do not get the necessary attention and supervision in the home. Oftentimes, schools in poor neighborhoods perform badly in part because the residents cannot provide enough tax revenue to support competitive local schools. But even where the local schools are not badly financed, poor students are more likely to struggle because they get less support at home and have less stability. As a result, they are less likely to go to become college graduates, which makes them less competitive on the job market, which means that when they have children those children will be subject to the same poisonous economic incentives that blighted their own upbringings. The cycle marches on:

Cycle of Poverty

Even if the political class were to entirely embrace the agenda of police violence activists, we would not even begin to touch this cycle. For all the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, he and his successors have to this point completely failed to secure for poor families the resources they need for their kids to make consistent socioeconomic gains. Children need their parents to have secure incomes and the free time necessary to be active and involved. This means that we cannot have both parents working full time, which means that incomes for poor parents need to be high enough to free up one of them (it doesn’t matter whether it’s the mother or the father) to be involved and proactive as a parent. The work parents do in the home is essential and valuable work. Ideally the state would pay parents directly for this work through a system of child benefits, but we could also significantly improve things by raising the wages of parents who are in employment, to make it easier for them to work part time or for them to support a parent who stays home. A combination of gradual minimum wage hikes for those in work and significant child benefits for low income families would relieve financial pressures and free up parents to do the crucial work of preparing the next generation to climb higher. We could also redistribute funds from affluent school districts to poorer ones and offer to bus poor kids to higher performing schools on a voluntary basis.

It should also be pointed out that while poor blacks and poor Hispanics would stand to gain the most from these kinds of programs, poor whites are often trapped in similar poverty cycles and would stand to benefit as well from minimum wage hikes, child benefits, school funding redistribution, and voluntary busing. Too often, the right co-opts poor whites by misleadingly implying that poor whites will be made to pay into these programs for the benefit of poor blacks. This is a crude and disgusting form of race-baiting. The truth is that while blacks will disproportionately benefit because the poor population is disproportionately black, poor whites should and would receive the same kind of help.

This isn’t the only reason why we don’t take action. These kinds of programs would require us to redistribute resources from the affluent to the poor. Affluent people are happy to support anti-racist causes when they confine themselves to stopping police violence and opposing hate speech, but when it comes to putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, folks are full of excuses.

What I find ultimately so sad about all of this is that because we only react to emotionally gripping crises, we only pay attention to the sensationalist side of racism–to killings, to the awful racist things that people say. We don’t pay attention to the chronic inequalities that cause millions of people to fail to meet their potentials, to the powerful economic forces that generate crime, break up our families, and impede social mobility. This is isn’t just true about race–we wait to respond to all sorts of political problems until there is a devastating crisis that frightens us. As a result, we can only reply to horrible events after the fact. We don’t have the collective institutional foresight to see them coming and prevent them. Instead of challenging the inequalities and deregulation that would go on to produce the financial crisis in 2008, we wait until the crisis strikes and then make a series of panicked decisions to minimize the damage as best we can. Instead of doing something about climate change, we’ll wait until the consequences become severe enough to take the form of horrible crises, at which point our policy options will be limited and terribly expensive. Because we don’t emotionally respond to chronic problems, we don’t put pressure on politicians to do anything about them. So people continue to suffer, and they will go on continuing to suffer and the chronic problems will go on continuing to worsen until something happens that’s so terrible that we can no longer ignore them.

Ben Franklin said:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But if we will only pay attention to diseases when the terrible symptoms are staring us in the face in the most horrible possible way, we will never prevent anything, and one of these days a disease will come along that will kill us before we can cure it.