As Chicago aims to paint a picture of itself as a safe, clean and cosmopolitan metropolis that is ready to host the world with the 2016 Olympic Games, many of its working class neighborhoods on the south and west sides represent a rather stark contrast. Those neighborhoods have recently witnessed one of the worst rashes of youth violence the world over, and most often, that violence has been black-on-black or Latino-on-Latino.
Meanwhile, far beyond that bloodshed, Chicago’s bid for the Olympics is buttressed by the fact that Chicago has birthed the nation’s first black president and first lady, in addition to its being home to one of the world’s most successful black cultural icons, Oprah Winfrey. This is no more evident than in the fact that the Obamas and Winfrey are traveling to Copenhagen, Denmark to spearhead Chicago’s Olympic dreams.
There is something eerie that underlies those theatrics and that derives from the division between what I envision as an Olympic Chicago of myth and a tragic Chicago of reality. I take nothing away from the Obamas’ or Winfrey’s personal accomplishments. But their ascendancy to that level of influence and the role that they are performing on that stage fit within a grander discursive binary between good blacks vs. bad blacks and a cured vs. diseased America in this post-civil rights era.
The success and influence of people like our Obamas and Winfreys (and even myself for that matter) bear the weight of representing the triumph of American democracy. It signals that America has, in some way, reconciled its most glaring and enduring contradiction as a democratic state. In some ways, one can make the case that wealthy and educated African-Americans have replaced the huddled masses of European immigrants as the protagonists within the grand narrative of America as the most exceptional nation in the world. The Obamas represent, more than any other political figures in our history, the idea that one can indeed be anything that they want to be in this grandest of nations if one works hard enough and steers away from all negative influences.
Whether it is staged in Denmark, Denver, or downtown Chicago, that performance is most compelling when signs of rampant black suffering are discounted or occluded. You simply cannot sell an image of the U.S. as a nation that now loves its once scorned black population and gives it equal access to the American dream, without that denial. In sum, the Obamas are hyper-visible as representatives of Chicago and the U.S. in ways that are related to how the bloodshed from Chicago’s black and Latino youth has been rendered somewhat invisible.
Even when there is some visibility towards that bloodshed, it tends to be characterized as a product of poor choices, lack of discipline, lack of morals, uncensored popular culture, and a lack of family values within our inner city communities. Rarely is a long history of systemic and structural anti-black or anti-Latino racism considered. This is due, in part, to the fact that the hyper-visibility of our Obamas and Winfreys drastically reduces the significance of that history. Even when grassroots activists from the very communities stricken with rampant violence protest against youth violence, they tend to blame it on their neighbors more than they do on the despair that they face in communities where jobs, adequate schools, affordable housing, and even environmentally healthy living conditions are scarce.
We deserve a more critical perspective. There has never been a moment in U.S. history when black or Latino communities have not been stricken by these social ills. Such a fact does not derive from any primordial characteristic of blacks or Latinos. This is a reflection of the fact that those two ethnic groups in particular (with apologies to Native Americans) have been constructed as the most direct anti-thesis of the morally sound and ethical self image that whites have created for themselves as representatives of this nation.
Regardless of the age, it takes a considerable extent of psychological numbing for someone to shoot, beat, or knife to death one’s peer. In addition, one has to have stockpiled an abundance of frustration and hopelessness by that point in his/her life in order to act out in a way that is guaranteed to land one in a prison cage for much if not all of their life. For far too many young people, that cage seems not too much worse than the restricted lives they are already living.
It’s far too easy to look at Chicago’s youth violence and say that too many young blacks or Latinos are engrained with complete disregard for human life. A more critical and historically astute vision, however, suggests that the kind of human life that has been modeled and provided for them day in and day out is not a very highly regarded one. It’s hard for children to look beyond that despair and act in a heroic fashion, and this is despite the number of Obamas or Winfreys we parade in front of them on television.
As to what is so commonly said within the communities the kids are born into: “real recognizes real,” how can we blame youth violence on broken homes when structural and state sanctioned laws have been the primary source of that breaking? How can we blame working class black and Latino parents for the decisions their children make when the hustle of maintaining even the humblest of homes in a city like Chicago takes them away from their children for the vast majority of their day?
At a time when unemployment and incarceration rates are skyrocketing, we are granting multimillion dollar bailouts to failed corporate executives and are promising even more funds than that to ensure that the world’s top athletes compete against one another against the backdrop of Chicago’s magnificent skyline and lakefront. The plan might work just as long as no one ventures too deep into the south or west side of Chicago.