Now that Chicago has recorded the fewest number of murders since 1965, maybe the hyperbole that the city is the murder capital of America will die.
But I would like to use this opportunity for the city’s residents to think differently about crime and neighborhoods, and how we respond to perceptions. Chicagoans, let’s please retire the insidious term “Chiraq.” The expression plays off Chicago and Iraq, joined together as a means to show the so-called war-ravaged conditions in the Windy City.
Chiraq is used like a badge of honor on the South and West Sides. Young people sport Chiraq T-shirts that depict the city skyline juxtaposed with heavy weaponry. Sometimes the Chiraq logo is written in lovely cursive. Other times it’s written in graffiti below a bullet-torn blue city flag.
Chiraq as urban lexicon is a byproduct of the city’s crime statistics and how the rest of the country labels us The Scariest Place in America.
In 2012, Chicago led the nation in the number of homicides, at around 500. At the close of 2013, police say 415 people were murdered in the city that year. Twenty years ago the count surpassed 900; the 1970s and 1980s were similarly murderous. Even in a good year, none of these are acceptable figures. Tallying mostly faceless homicide victims throughout a given year—done weekly by the media with the casualness of sports roundups—doesn’t fully depict what Chicago violence looks like. This is the environment in which “Chiraq” thrives and is regarded by some denizens as a bragging point. Chiraq is not uttered in any kind of solidarity with Iraqis.
It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of the term Chiraq, which has been promoted over the last few years. Local rappers have adopted the Chiraq nickname. It’s still an underground term that hasn’t penetrated the Chicago mainstream.
Spoken-word artist Malcolm London, 20, told the Chicago Tribune: “It’s a scary term, but it’s a true term. Coming from the West Side, it’s not a joke. The sad part is, people who may not be here, or live here, may use the term to glorify the violence. But no one enjoys living in a war zone.”
Residents can be very casual in their Chiraq usage. Chicago is a blustery “City of Big Shoulders,” the “City on the Make.” Chiraq ignores systemic problems of racial inequality that fester in black neighborhoods. These problems are not unique to Chicago—but amplified.