Having grown up on the streets of Chicago’s South Side, there’s a painful numbness that takes hold whenever I see headlines declaring that the police have gunned down yet another black person.
From the time that I was five years old, my grandmother taught my cousin and I how to fall to the floor and dodge gunfire from the police or gangs, even within the walls of her Englewood home. It wasn’t a matter of if a shooting would take place, but when. She wanted us to be prepared.
As we grew up, the twin shadows of racial profiling and gun violence stalked our trips to the park and our school basketball games. When we turned on the evening news, stories of babies struck by stray bullets and black men brutalized by officers dominated the headlines. Not that we were surprised. More often than not, we saw—or at least heard—about the violence as it happened.
I survived that period of my life, but I know how easy it can be for young black men (and women) to get caught up by the system or gunned down in the streets. For many of Chicago’s black people, these emotional wounds run deep, and have for decades. Tragedies like these aren’t the exception. They’re just called life. Such was the case last year, when a 17-year-old teen named Laquan McDonald was fatally shot 16 times by a police officer “worried” for his safety.
Having witnessed my city’s violence firsthand, I see no need to watch yet another video of a young black person’s final moments, even as two more make headlines this week. I do not need to further be reminded that these scenarios could’ve played out in my own family, a tight-knit clan including outspoken men who could be one pointed remark away from being choked to death like an Eric Garner, and intelligent women who could be one “traffic stop” away from death in a cell like Sandra Bland. I need not engage in disaster pornography. I do not need to literally see the tasers sting or bullets rain down to understand our widespread problem of racialized policing and brutality.
There’s no denying that Chicago, like many other large urban centers, has yet to substantively address issues of poverty, inequality, and lack of access to opportunity for black people and other people of color—especially compared to their relatively more affluent, white neighbors. We cannot divorce McDonald’s death—and the deaths of many others that have occurred before and since—from the social conditions that have engendered a continuous struggle for black communities and black young people in the city.
Combined with the overpolicing of communities of color and aberrant disciplinarian educational environments for black students, structural racism fuels the criminalization, crime, and imprisonment that has long ensnared many black and brown people.
Consider public education, a resonant example of the Windy City’s racial politics. Not long after the 2011 election of Rahm Emanuel, the mayor went on a rampage against Chicago’s public schools, slating roughly 50 “failing” elementary and high schools for closure as part of cost-cutting measures. The unpopular closures occurred mostly in low-income areas. But as community advocates and teachers have noted, the larger problem is that the wealth isn’t fairly distributed in every Chicago neighborhood.
As Chicago’s Daily Southtown reported in March, Illinois schools have the most unfair funding structure in the nation, representing the nation’s largest funding gap—one based almost exclusively on a property tax-based funding structure. In essence, the rich (and mainly white) get a good head start, and the poor remain left to their own devices.
According to the Chicago Public Schools’ latest data from the 2014-2015 school year, only 9% of its students are white, while roughly 45% are Hispanic and 39% are black. Chicago Public Schools students also face relatively low graduation rates, hovering between 60% and 70% per class since 2011. And as the Chicago Tribune reported, only 14% of students who start out as freshmen in the CPS will graduate from a college or university by their mid-20s.
We know that education is an invaluable resource. It’s why my parents, along with others in our family, sacrificed to send their kids to parochial schools and “gifted” programs as alternatives to the subpar neighborhood public schools. Absent that decision, there’s little chance I would’ve ever attended the elite high schools and universities that proved integral to my current career path and life opportunities.
It shouldn’t be of much surprise, then, that the Chicago Teachers Union has joined ongoing protests calling for accountability in the death of McDonald. The 17-year-old was a longtime ward of the state who reportedly made A’s and B’s at Sullivan House High School, a school which caters primarily to at-risk and dropout students.
McDonald’s grades are an indicator that the young man was trying to improve his life—but he never got that chance, of course. His final moments, captured on a police dashboard camera, show him holding a small knife. He wasn’t lunging at officers as police union representatives claimed.
And yet we heard again the same “feared for my life” script referenced ad nauseam when officers attempt to justify their excessive, homicidal use of force. These knee-jerk attempts to demonize and criminalize young black people disguise the depressing quandary facing McDonald’s generation. How can we avoid the many perils and pitfalls of life in the streets when under-resourced and oft-neglected schools present few plausible alternatives?
The truth is that Chicagoans, black and white, have always cared about their city. Black people in particular have witnessed the city’s crime rates increase and its school system begin to crumble, even as beautiful new skyscrapers sprouted throughout downtown—and they cared. It’s about time politicians, and the privileged, reckon with this fact. This isn’t about so-called black-on-black crime or black people not taking care of its own, this is about the concerns of black Chicagoans being ignored in the halls of government.
There’s a certain kind of hopelessness that sets in after a while. I hear it in my grandmother’s voice when she talks about the violence in the streets. I see it on my uncle’s face when the evening news comes on. And I feel it when my community’s black young people flood the streets, pulsing with righteous anger, and frustration, and pain.
One would think the clear lack of accountability—even following the ouster of police superintendent Garry McCarthy—would be enough to make more white Chicagoans and politicians want to holler in the streets for justice, too. But if those with the most institutional power feel the groundswell of emotion, they aren’t showing it.
They’ve become comfortably numb. It’s something of a contagion in Chicago, affecting both black and white people alike. Yet slowly and surely, beginning with the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, I’m learning to feel again. I’m learning to be okay with the tears tapping my keyboard when yet another name becomes a hashtag. Above all else, I’m learning to better empathize with life outcomes that don’t always mirror my own.
Survivor’s guilt is a real thing, but in order to tackle these types of systemic problems we have to transcend it. Laquan McDonald could’ve been me. Ultimately I survived, and he didn’t. The best way to honor his memory to keep fighting. And so we will.