cold blood

17 07 2007

Bob Herbert’s opinion piece in the Times this morning was about Senator Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Vernon Park Church of God, in which he addressed the increasing number of murders among Chicago school children in the past year.

Herbert’s column basically parrots Mr. Obama’s plea for greater governmental action as well as individual responsibility:

In a conversation yesterday, he stressed that the plight of young people struggling in tough environments demands both governmental attention and a heightened sense of individual responsibility. Both are essential.

It’s safe to demand more from the government while also demanding more from people as individuals. That really covers all the bases: No one want school children to die, right? And the liberals say George W. Bush needs to impose stricter gun regulation, and the conservatives maintain that if only those lower-income minority families would stay out of trouble and stop doing crack none of this would happen. Mr. Obama’s speech, as presented by Herbert, comes out dead in the middle. He’s a smartly political man, that Obama. You’d think he was running for president.

The bold choice Mr. Obama made yesterday, however, had nothing to do with the solutions he offered. While he did mention stricter gun control regulations (a hop topic for Democratic nominees in this election), he really did something marvelous just by bringing attention to a problem that is under-reported at best.

Last September I spent four hours in a community garden in the neighborhood of South Chicago on a day that was particularly quiet. The tiny garden, cultivated by willing volunteers in the neighborhood, was the largest area of green space for miles in any direction. The woman who showed us around the garden — a volunteer who had moved to Chicago from the West coast — was sad that day. One of the teenagers who often helped at the garden and spent every day after school in the corresponding community art center had been shot and killed the night before. South Chicago falls right between gang lines — incidents like that are common. One teacher told our group that no one ever showed up to school on Halloween because it was simply too dangerous to walk outside; even in the day time. As Bob Herbert aptly wrote, “Chicago is hardly alone when it comes to the slaughter of youngsters who are living in conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.”

I don’t write that as a scare tactic. The truth is, if you’re white and middle class, you’re not really in danger at all. Funny, then, how the news disproportionately reports stories with white victims and Black or Latino attackers. An extensive Berkeley study done in 2001 shows unequivocally that the news is designed to scare white people and antagonize Black people. Among the findings:

In nine of 12 (75%) studies, minorities were overrepresented as perpetrators of crime. Six out of seven (86%) studies that clearly identify the race of victims found more attention was paid to White victims than to Black victims.

Several studies found that Black victims are less likely to be covered in newspapers than are White victims, and one found that newsworthiness increases when the victim is White.

Homicides of White victims resulted in more and longer articles than homicides of Black victims.

The truth is, it is all too easy to pull a Bill Cosby and point fingers at the minorities of America. While there is something to be said of the Black conservative argument (, for instance, discusses these arguments intelligently, hilariously and at length), there is a lot more to be said for the fact that we can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars providing aid to the friends and families of the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre, while pushing the real victims of the American system further down the drain.

Mr. Obama was correct to address an issue which puts modern American racism on the table, looks it in the eye, and demands it to explain itself. America, what are we doing for these families who do not deserve to suffer any more than you or I do?

The solution is not for the government to ban guns in the inner cities (as Obama would have it, incidentally) and expect the problem to fix itself. The solution is not for single mothers who are working two jobs to buy healthier juice boxes and more colorful hard-bound children’s books for their impressionable kin. The solution is for America to wake the fuck up, realize that we are not living in a country where all men are treated equally, and start the long and painful discussion that is embarrassingly overdue.




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