This is a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I’ve expressed discomfort with “Chiraq,” and the other stigmatizing ways we talk about places and people on the South and West Sides before—but I haven’t really put together a coherent argument explicitly citing the research that informs my feelings about the issue.
My hometown, Chicago, is having a fight over words: in particular, “Chiraq.” That’s a portmanteau of “Chicago” and “Iraq,” which is meant to analogize the city not to that country’s rich cultural heritage, or extreme weather, but to its war. The name seems to have come from a South Side rapper, but has since been popularized by headlines in decidedly non-South Side outlets, at least three different VICE mini-documentaries, and most recently an in-the-works Spike Lee movie.
Most cities might not have a nickname with such staying power, but they’re familiar with the concept. “Killadelphia”; “Murder Worth”; “Bullet Town”; even“Murder Kroger.” Last year, a website called “Judgmental Maps” made a name for itself by posting annotated maps of American cities; some of the entries for Atlanta, to take a city at random, included “Little Crackistan,” “Dangerous Mexicans,” and “Avoid.” The map for Washington, DC, labeled all of the Anacostia area simply “GUNS & AIDS.” Around the same time, an app called SketchFactorannounced that it could help you get where you were going while avoiding “sketchy” neighborhoods.
Judging by the debate in Chicago, many people don’t see a problem with these expressions of local reputation. In a widely-shared essay, one prominent writer declared that “Chiraq” was indicative of real problems, from violent crime to concentrated poverty, and “arguing over what to call” that “shameful reality” was simply a tool of distraction—putting up a Potemkin facade to avoid dealing with the real issues.
It’s certainly true that the problems “Chiraq”—and, for that matter, “Killadelphia” or “Bullet Town”—was meant to encapsulate are real. (Even the “Murder Kroger” really did witness a murder.) But the second part of the argument—that the name itself is harmless—is simply not true.
Over the last few years, issues of racial and economic segregation have seen a new burst of attention, covering historic issues like redlining and cutting-edge research on the effect of concentrated poverty on economic mobility. But one of the squishier sides of segregation has received much less coverage: stigma.
Stigma creates the very problems it supposedly reflects
In part, that’s understandable: it’s much harder to measure stigma than it is to measure segregation—or even, as it turns out, to measure intergenerational economic opportunity. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real, and powerful, force. In fact, strong evidence suggests that stigma can help create the very disadvantages it supposedly reflects.