My great-uncle left central Georgia to serve his country abroad and never returned to the Deep South. He eventually chose the greener pastures of the South Side. After 60 years in Chicago he told me, “Chicago has the best of everything…but it also has the worst of everything.” Chicago is unmatched in beauty and splendor. Chicago is also plagued by a sense of hopelessness. Chicago is America: a nation first in ideals but ranked last in health care, among comparable nations. America produces Nobel Peace Prize winners like Dr. King, who in turn called this country the “greatest purveyor of violence” on the globe. If America is the world’s greatest nation, Chicago is undoubtedly its most accurate reflection.
I gave up everything to be with my love — her name is Chicago. She is reviled and scorned by many and yet known by so few. She is strange to masses who only know her through the narratives of distant strangers, motivated by politics and racial resentment when they speak her name. Stop and listen for although I am not her native son, I gave everything to be held in her embrace.
I know my love’s immeasurable beauty and I’m aware of her fatal flaws. The authenticity and forgiving nature of her people scarcely exists elsewhere and yet those people are often burdened by pain. I hear what others say about my love yet their words stray from what I have observed with my eyes. When I mention my lover’s name others are filled with terror. How can this be, especially when most of the terrorized have never been to the city? The nation has been taught to fear Chicago but not by statistics. Yes, of late there has been a surge in violent crime but you are twice as likely to be killed in St. Louis than in Chicago. Indeed, the city’s murder rate was significantly higher in the 90’s and plunged thereafter. Why the fixation now on Chicago violence?
My love is large, in population and mass. This makes her wonderful but also a target for political posturing. It is easier to say her name than another. But my love also satisfies a national appetite for black pathology, giving life to narratives absent critical analysis. As always, race rears its ugly head. Race prohibits others from seeing my love as she is. Social analysis is never precise when race is introduced. The Moynihan report of the 1960’s told us that out-of-wedlock births indicated black families were entangled in “pathology.” That is, black families were utterly abnormal and defective. As Dr. Andrew Hacker pointed out in his book Two Nations, white families have since surpassed those same numbers Moynihan cited for black families and yet there is no mention of the pathology of whites.
In the same way we fail to see Chicago clearly today. When 468 were murdered in the city in 2015, we were told the world was ending. That 468 pales in comparison to the 619 killed in 1925, a period when the city population was on par with today. As the South and West Sides of the city bleed today, Chicago was a bloodbath in the 1920’s, ruled by gangsters like Al Capone. We were able to do objective analysis during that period when the gangsters were white but we seem incapable today.
Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard scholar, asserted in a 1999 paper that violence– and homicides specifically– peak most when prohibition of drugs or alcohol are vigorously enforced. The alcohol prohibition and the Drug War eras, naturally, have the most pronounced homicide rates. In the 1920’s and early 30’s we were able to see that bad public policy –prohibition– pushed Eastern European immigrants, who lacked economic opportunities, to accept the working conditions of the illegal alcohol business and carnage ensued. Today 47% of black men in Chicago between 20 and 24 are neither working or in school. Naturally, the illegal drug industry recruits from that demographic and carnage ensues. Unlike in the 1920’s, however, we now conclude that the people are bad and not the policies. Narratives of black pathology are far more desirable.
Accepting these narratives robs us from seeing my love as she is. Have you ever seen the city from a perch along Lake Michigan? Have you ever learned a second language within the English language, like those spoken on the South Side, and experienced the richness of a black culture unrivaled in North America? Such literary wealth can be heard on a number of street corners, conveying more meaning than all of Shakespeare’s prose. Have you seen the fusion of an untold number of architectural traditions all singing in harmony across the city sky? Have you dined in the fine restaurants of the loop? Have you eaten rib tips from Lem’s or cupcakes from Brown Sugar Bakery on 75th street? If you haven’t, you have not yet seen the best of America.