The high homicide rate in Chicago today is no mystery. But understanding it requires courage to look bravely at Chicago’s past and confront the Windy City’s historic structures of racism.
I’ve been studying gangs and violence in Chicago for more than 20 years. I’ve concluded three factors underlay Chicago’s high homicide rate.
First, 2016 did not represent a spike, but more of a return to Chicago’s historic level of homicide. Homicide rates jumped from 17/100,000 in 2015 to about 29/100,000 in 2016. This "spike" brought us to rates that were considerably higher than rates over the past decade. But this near-sighted focus omits this city’s persistently high rates of homicide before 2004. Chicago’s average homicide rate from 1970 to 2016 is 24.3. Our 600 plus homicides so far in 2017 put us squarely at the average homicide rate of the past half century.
Second, Chicago’s homicide rate is very similar to other rustbelt cities, e.g. Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Memphis. In the early 1990s, homicide rates of all US cities soared with the crack wars. Like other rustbelt cities, as well as big cities like Philadelphia, Chicago’s rate fell moderately. Cities like New York and Los Angeles saw their homicide rate plummet while high homicide cities like Baltimore, New Orleans St. Louis and Detroit stayed high. We should realize that Chicago's murder rate today is 5-6 times higher than New York City’s and shows no sign of breaking away from other rustbelt cities.
What rustbelt cities have in common are severely distressed areas with many unemployed and desperate young black men — and high homicide rates. While New York City has only 15% of its population in what Richard Florida calls “distressed” zip codes, Chicago has almost 40% of its citizens living in such areas, about the same as Philadelphia, whose homicide rate is identical with ours. Detroit, with its even higher homicide rates, has an astounding 99% of its citizens living in such distressed areas.
The high homicide areas in Chicago on the west and south sides are the areas of the greatest distress and extreme poverty, with youth unemployment rates exceeding 90% according to a UIC Great Cities study. These are not coincidentally areas of concentrated black poverty. The key to understanding homicide in Chicago is race, not gangs. There are likely as many Latino as black gang members, but African Americans account for 78% of all homicide victims and Latinos 16%.
Finally, why didn’t Chicago’s rate fall to single digits like New York and LA? Observers point to out of control violence due to the "fracturing" of Chicago's gangs. But why did gangs fracture? The crucial factor appears to be the impact of the demolition of the Chicago Housing Authority projects which were originally built to keep Chicago segregated. CHA projects had become fortresses for the gangs and treasure chests for their drug businesses. Gang wars waged in the 1990s between CHA towers. Faced with similar problems at that time New York invested more than $5 billion dollars in repairing their low income housing projects and stabilizing neighborhoods. In contrast Chicago diverted renovation money to law enforcement, then tore down the projects, scattering tens of thousands of residents.
In the early 2000s, gang members forced out of public housing migrated to areas already home to traditional gangs. These gangs had been weakened by their leaders isolated in maximum security cells, declining crack markets, and exhaustion after years of war. The massive influx of CHA gang members into south and west side neighborhoods caused youth to reorganize into local cliques, often named after fallen homeboys or rappers as Robert Aspholm has brilliantly described. Cliques today contain members of many different traditional gangs and their allegiance is to one another not the old hierarchically organized gangs. The years of 2004-2015 were years of reorganization and brand new rivalries were heating up. Violence today is more spontaneous and looks nothing like the organized wars of the 1990s. The release of the video of LaQuan McDonald’s murder and a long history of police abuse set off a contagious plague of violence.
It is the large pool of angry, unemployed, young black men in a segregated rustbelt city along with the history of racism in Chicago that explains our high homicide levels. Investment in neighborhoods of concentrated black poverty is an obvious remedy. Less obvious, but just as important, is for youth organizers and social movements to provide a positive outlet for the new, alienated and largely leaderless new gangs. This is the glimmer of hope in a story of racism and despair.
Aspholm, Robert. 2015. "It Ain't the Nineties Anymore." in Social Work. Chicago University of Illinois-Chicago.
Hagedorn, John M. and Brigid Rauch. 2007. "Housing, Gangs, and Homicide: What We can Learn from Chicago." Urban Affairs Review 42(4):435-56.
Popkin, Susan J. 2000. The hidden war : crime and the tragedy of public housing in Chicago. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.