I can’t find the tweet, but the other day Chris Hayes (backed up by @prisonculture) was talking about how several facts that are often presented as contradictory are, in fact, simultaneously true. Here’s a partial list:
1. Crime is too high. This is the point from which discussions should begin, both to acknowledge that these conversations are, in fact, about the really intense suffering of human beings, and also to preemptively tether any further points to the very serious and sad reality they’re trying to describe.
2. Crime has fallen dramatically, both in the city as a whole and in the vast majority, if not all, neighborhoods. I’ve written about this; Andrew Papachristos, who has better credentials than me, has written about it.
3. Crime statistics in Chicago, as in many other cities, are manipulated. The two-part Chicago Magazine piece that came out a bit ago is the best place for details on the Chicago version, though if you’ve seen The Wire, you basically know the story. Note, though, that even the authors of the Chicago piece acknowledge that what they’ve uncovered doesn’t mean crime hasn’t been falling, even over the three-year period they investigated.
4. Chicago is nowhere near the “murder capital” of the United States, nor is it anywhere near as dangerous as wartime Iraq or Afghanistan. The media, by and large, has simply failed to do its job on this front, repeatedly claiming or strongly implying that Chicago is the most dangerous city in the country. It’s not even remotely true.
5. Chicago’s “murder inequality” has gotten worse, and may be worse than other cities’. I’ve written about this before.
You rarely see any one person make – or even acknowledge as true, despite what I would consider overwhelming evidence – all of these points at the same time. I suspect that’s because for reasons both general (police departments don’t like to admit to their own funny business; neighborhoods suffering from crime are loathe to be told things are getting better) and specific to Chicago (extreme, and mostly earned, distrust of the police; distrust of Mayor Emanuel; a strong national narrative about Chicago’s crime rates going back to the 1920s), conversations about crime tend to break down into “sides.” On one side – blatantly generalizing – are city officials and their supporters, who would like to emphasize that things are getting better, while acknowledging more quietly that things are still pretty bad. On the other are people who believe that city officials aren’t doing everything they could to prevent crime, and emphasize the extent to which the status quo is traumatic and unacceptable.
There are, of course, lots and lots of people who don’t fit easily into either of these camps. But to the extent you do, you’re likely to resist acknowledging some of the facts above, because you don’t think they help your side. If you’re Rahm Emanuel or with the CPD, you don’t necessarily want to talk a lot about the extent to which crime is a disaster in huge parts of the city, or the extent to which crime is suffered unequally – other than when you have to, for example after the Fourth of July weekend, at which point you’ll pound a lectern and then try to move on. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to press the case that Emanuel hasn’t done enough about crime, you might think that someone who talks about the fall in crime – or the fact that Chicago isn’t actually the most dangerous city in the country – is making excuses for policies that are costing people’s lives.
Since Rahm Emanuel and Garry McCarthy don’t make a habit of responding to this blog, I mostly get pushback from the latter group. When I write about Chicago’s fall in crime, or about the extent to which people exaggerate Chicago’s crime relative to other cities, I often hear from people who aren’t just incredulous about whether I’m telling the truth; they accuse me of actively wanting to sweep the problem under the rug. Given that I’ve written about how serious Chicago’s crime problem is on this blog and in national outlets, that seems a bit weird; but it’s true that if you see every conversation about crime as a debate between two “sides,” these facts don’t necessarily help theirs.
That said, they’re really important. Partly that’s just because they’re the truth, and promoting a culture that says it’s offensive to talk about facts that might not mesh with a given political program or narrative is a really terrible idea for all sorts of reasons. But it’s also because in the larger picture, the widely-believed falsehoods about Chicago crime – that it’s getting worse, and that it’s exceptionally bad in an American context – are actually devastating for the very neighborhoods that their deniers are dedicated to serving.
As Robert Sampson wrote in Great American City, neighborhood reputation has an enormous impact – larger, in many cases, than the actual crime and poverty that reputation is supposed to reflect – on a community’s future trajectory: whether people will move in or leave; whether people will spend their money at local businesses; whether, in other words, the neighborhood thrives or suffers. Misinformation about crime is certainly not the only contributor to the negative reputation of Chicago’s black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides (and, to a lesser extent, Latino neighborhoods there) – there’s the heavy baggage of racism, among whose many tentacles (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) an eagerness to believe in mythological quantities of violent crime is only one.
But myths about crime is one of them, and it is hard to read the coverage – and listen to how people talk about it – and read Sampson’s research, and conclude that it doesn’t have an effect.