Black Leaders, We Need You to Tell the Full Story When Talking About Black Crime—and Black Humanity

Illustration for article titled Black Leaders, We Need You to Tell the Full Story When Talking About Black Crime—and Black Humanity
Photo: Natasha Moustache (Getty Images)

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has acceded to the presence of federal police in her city—the same federal officers who have been tear-gassing and beating men, mothers, and Navy veterans in Portland, Ore.—as part of President Trump’s ridiculously and ominously termed “Operation Legend.”

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The decision from the mayor, the city’s first who is a Black woman, not only guarantees increased violence on the streets of Chicago in the coming weeks and days; it also essentially gives credence to the president’s frequent use of the city as a cudgel of anti-Blackness, grounded in the idea that darker-skinned people living in hollowed-out, disinvested-in lands are uniquely violent and animalistic.

It comes at a time when racial tensions in the country are at a crackling precipice, readying to break at the hands of a president who has said Chicago is worse than Afghanistan; has called developing countries, like the one I immigrated from, “shitholes;” and has described racist white men who murder human beings by running over them “very fine people.

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It isn’t new or shocking for Trump and other racist non-Black people to point to Chicago and so-called “Black-on-Black crime” to imply that there is something specifically self-destructive about the Black race.

It isn’t even new for so-called Black leaders to echo the same, sometimes explicitly, like when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottom said recently after shooters in the Georgia city killed an 8-year-old in a wave of violence: “If you want people to take us seriously and you don’t want us to lose this movement, then we can’t lose each other.”

The kind of indiscriminate violence that continues to occur in parts of Atlanta and enclaves of Chicago, where just last week 15 people were gunned down outside of a funeral on the city’s West Side, is devastating and dispiriting—like violence that strikes the innocent always is.

But it is similarly devastating (as well as disingenuous and frankly dangerous, in the case of what’s to come for Chicago) for Black elected officials to practice the kind of rhetorical and political malfeasance that suggests poor Black people are the sole authors of their own devastation.

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I grew up in Jamaica, spending much of my childhood years in a poor ghetto community near the country’s first capital Spanish Town, where my grandmother raised two handfuls of children amid houses made of plywood and zinc fences like her own.

In Jamaica, we have a saying: “wi likkle but wi tallawah,” meaning we are small (the nation has a population of less than 3 million) but mighty. It’s a belief underscored by the fact that Jamaica’s music, cuisine, and even its track stars are world-renowned, but the country is also known for a high incidence of crime and violence that far eclipses the number of people living there and also stands out on the world stage. 

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Violence in Jamaica ranges from the typical—a random driveby that left an aunt of mine ducking bullets while out on a shopping trip, thankfully only being hit in the foot—to the heart-wrenchingly gruesome—a girl I knew in high school, an aspiring writer too, who was a year younger than me and excited to go on to college at the University of the West Indies until she and her mother were murdered, their decapitated heads thrown in the Rio Cobre.

Poverty in Jamaica is widely known and widely tolerated by leaders manipulating the levers of power in the systems that maintain it. If you’ve ever been to the island and ventured beyond the walls of the resorts—most owned by foreign investors—you’ve likely caught a glimpse of the destitution that stands bare next to the smiling faces of the country’s phenomenal, resilient people. Streets more likely to be potholed than smoothly paved. Children selling candy and fruit on the streets to subsidize their family’s income. Men crowding cars at traffic lights and squirting soapy water on windshields in hopes of a few dollars, equal turns eager and desperate to show they can make something of themselves with their hands.

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The Jamaican slum I come from mirrors many more across the island nation. I grew up seeing people purchase increments of cooking oil sold in plastic baggies at corner stores in their communities because they were unable to afford full bottles at grocery stores, unable to experience such a basic quality of life in a country where natural resources overflow like its many waterfalls.

The first time I ventured far into the South Side of Chicago as a teenager staying with family in the city for the summer, I was stunned by how much it looked like the ghettos I knew in Jamaica. The shiny streets of the city’s north side vanished and gave way to dusty sidewalks; no grocery stores or even ubiquitous retailers like Target in sight but plenty of corner food & liquor stores, the landscape dotted with young men somehow familiar to me with their faces both hungry and haunted, eking out a little life in a world where they’d been told lives—certainly their own—mean nothing.

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I couldn’t believe I was still in America.

I now live in Chicago, near the southern pole of the city where many of its Black residents reside, too few prospering and too many left behind.

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Black men in this city have the lowest life expectancy of anyone in the country, and it is cruelly dishonest to attribute that devastating fact to the myth of Black-on-Black crime rather than acknowledging all the other things that prematurely kill Black people living in poverty: a dearth of places around them to access affordable, healthy food; disinvestment in their communities and a lack of jobs with living wages; years of systemic racism that has resulted in COVID-19 taking the lives of more Black Chicagoans than any other residents—most of them from segregated neighborhoods where the median income is less than $25,000—on top of untreated trauma from violence they may have experienced or witnessed; as well as the impact of our ancestors’ violent experiences, which lives on in our DNA.

Riding a bus through some of Chicago’s South or West Side neighborhoods, as I used to do periodically on shopping trips and errands pre-COVID, always felt to me like a window into the obvious need for social services in these communities—not to mention the obvious division in resources across race lines in the city. It wasn’t unusual for me to be on a CTA bus and hear an outburst, see someone who appeared mentally unwell but clearly uncared for talking loudly, sometimes threatening violence. It was also familiar for me to hop on the “L” train line in the city’s glittering downtown, and watch its inhabitants become more melanated and eventually exclusively Black as it hurtled further away from where Chicago’s riches are on display, towards neighborhoods where some children grow up knowing the landmark that locals still call Sears Tower as just a vision in the distance.

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I attended university in Jamaica as a commuting student, and each morning I would walk through the long lane that makes up the rough neighborhood where I lived at the time with my grandmother to the main street to get a taxi or a ride from a friend I sometimes carpooled with to school.

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Some mornings I walked by men—many of them barely out of boyhood—standing guard with weapons at the margins of our community, ostensibly for protection against gunmen from the slum across the lane. Some nights, I heard gunfire that sounded like fireworks while trying to fall asleep; so much so that I still can’t distinguish the spike of anxiety I get from hearing either kind of explosion.

Somehow I could also see the sadness of the lives that were stolen from these young men, leaving them chillingly unable to see the horror of taking a life—whether it be the unlucky family member of a rival gang, or a random bystander, or even an innocent child.

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Environments where lives are diminished create people who go onto diminish lives.

It’s not an excuse, it’s an obvious explanation. Black people aren’t inherently more likely to be killers of each other than other races are, and any suggestion that this is the case is repugnant, ignorant, and racist. Period.

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Though the solution to addressing the scourge of crime we all deplore seems to be fairly obvious, elected Black leaders here and in my home country have largely used their positions of power to perpetuate a legacy of disinvestment in places already devastated by poverty and state-sponsored racism. They’ve passed budgets that close schools and eliminate social services in struggling neighborhoods, then performed outrage at the horrifying and now-predictable consequences of human suffering left to fester, and gone on to fund the introduction of more violent police into communities where they regard the people who live there as little more than animals.

I don’t pretend to understand the burden of being a leader in charge of solving seemingly intractable problems for communities of people who also look like you. But at the very least, don’t piss on our faces and tell us it’s raining—especially when we’re crying, too.

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Writer, speaker, finesser, and a fly dresser. Jamaican-American currently chilling in Chicago.

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DISCUSSION

schrodingersdoubt
Dosadi's failed experiment

Thank you for writing this piece.

There is also another legacy that contributes to the violence in Chicago. Police, and policing are a major part of the problem. For decades, Chicago police arrested and tortured innocent black men across the city and let known violent offenders continue to live and thrive in the cities. People could not report them to the police for fear of retaliation, nor would the police remove the violent offenders. Police and political corruption runs rampant in Illinois. Enforced segregation and generational poverty without hope are also major contributors.

I lived in Chicago for nearly 10 years on the South Side and I can honestly say the violence was not everywhere, but it is a problem that aligns with the history of racism and segregation in the city.