Chicago. New Orleans. Detroit. All of these cities are frequently cited as epicenters of gun violence, with stories about neighborhood shootings regularly appearing on our nightly news. But rarely will news coverage offer the full context for inner-city violence: In particular, these cities are among the most economically unequal cities in the country.
The United States has both the highest economic inequality and highest homicides levels of any wealthy nation. And it’s no coincidence. Economic inequality tears at the social fabric of our communities.
However, conversations around inner-city gun violence—contrary to conversations around gun violence in suburban communities—rarely highlight the nuanced realities of the people (many of color) who live in distressed communities with little economic opportunity and scarce resources.
And while focusing on black and brown Americans as perpetrators is the norm, less often do we think about the inverse: that race, class and location also destine black and brown Americans to a greater likelihood of becoming victims.
Poverty is a frequently cited cause for gun violence. The African-American poverty rate is double that for white Americans, and nearly one third of African-American children are impoverished. But poverty is less a cause and more a symptom of larger structural racial and economic inequities percolating in our urban centers.
At its crux, inner-city violence has been and continues to be the consequence of policies and programs (and also the absence of) that hamper the economic opportunity and mobility of our country’s poorest.
The decline in the manufacturing sector compounded by white flight has devastated inner cities with fewer jobs, scarce resources and a shrinking tax base. And the policies that created opportunity for white Americans to join the middle class continue to be inaccessible to many African Americans, resulting in higher unemployment, low income and low wealth. Black unemployment has been double white unemployment for 50 years, nearly half of black youths are unemployed and black Americans have a fraction of the wealth of whites.
Interestingly, many of these same cities are becoming hubs for economic opportunity. But policies to attract higher income (and therefore primarily white residents) residents back are unfortunately reinforcing the same forms of social and economic segregation. Funds are being targeted to subsidize development but not affordable housing. And poor residents, primarily people of color, are being displaced, widening the growing inequality this country has experienced for more than three decades.
Addressing the gun-violence epidemic is a multipronged effort, but lessening economic inequality must be at the agenda’s core. We must advocate at the federal, state and local level that low- to moderate-income housing be better integrated into high-income communities. A family’s location greatly determines their exposure to economic and educational opportunities. We also need to create more job opportunities for communities with high levels of concentrated poverty, which are mostly the same communities with high levels of unemployment. And expanding public-transit systems can also improve accessibility to economic opportunity.
Inner-city violence stems from lack of opportunity, stark inequality and a hopelessness that pervades disenfranchised communities. While the country has made some gains in lowering gun violence in many urban areas, the next step requires us to recognize that aggressively investing in mass economic opportunity—not mass incarceration—is the far better solution.